Reviewing for Results

Who doesn’t love a great review game? Search for Gold, Trasketball, Eggspert, Group Fai-Tao — share your game ideas, and make my list grow. Kids are engaged. Excitement is high. Academic content swirls through the air. If my role in the game is low key, these are the days I leave with a light step. Game Day = Beautiful Day.
Yet sadly, review games rarely get prime time in my class anymore.

In spite of my review game adoration, I finally had to admit my students’** test scores in the last couple of semesters failed to be positively impacted by a full period, day-before-the-test, review game.  Perhaps the application-level test content is to blame.  Maybe it’s the batch of students.  Perhaps students get a false sense of being prepared and then fail to study at home. Perhaps on the day before a test critical time is lost on the game elements or on questions students may not need to practice. Maybe I just stink at game administration. I wish I knew. (Send me your tips or action research.)

In the mean time, if boosted assessment scores are the goal, a day of pure skill-based differentiation has proven effective with my students**.  Differentiation is such a broad topic, taking a million forms in the classroom. This particular recipe for disaster results calls for three to four main groups completing tasks tailored to their deficits/strengths.

Differentiated quadratic reviewDifferentiated Review Day was yesterday; the skill set: Solving quadratic equations using multiple methods.  A formative assessment provided the baseline data to create the tasks and assign a portion of the groups.  The rest assigned themselves by matching academic needs to the options given. The highest tier self-paced through a SAS Curriculum Pathways interactive applet (great resource for tons of subject areas).   The feeder group worked autonomously on a Quadratic Equations Practice Guide.    Group 3 started with a Quadratic Formula remedial worksheet and eventually joined the feeder group.  Others joined a pull-out session at the board working on student-identified problems.   As these students became more proficient, they bailed and advanced to the practice guide.

Now,let’s be clear.  Differentiated Day = My Headache Day.  Talk about earning your money!

Here are a few standards of operation for survival:

Demand student buy-in before ever starting.  Differentiation is by nature difficult; without student cooperation it hits the level of nightmare.

Pull-out groups have to be a student’s choice.  Remove student choice and waste time convincing students of the placement and need to embrace the help. When I remove the stigma of being designated low, most students I would have chosen for the teacher tutorial group place themselves there.

Set a priority.  The pull-out group always gets my priority.  Already confused and frustrated, they deserve my time and full attention.  If I try to meet everyone’s needs while differentiating, I start hopping from student to student.  It’s the pull-out group that gets disjointed explanations and completely shafted.  Other students can find alternate sources of help or pick up the next worksheet on their own, because I …

Set-up a system that removes some of the teacher roles. Why not let technology or a well-designed worksheet with a built-in answer system give students the immediate feedback that they need? Depend on (and trust) student cooperation for classroom management. Set boundaries that promote a successful learning experience for all.  Redefine the boundaries mid-stream if the water seems a little turbulent.   Two minutes of solo work for all but the tutorial group works wonders. (This is normally followed by a request for 90% solo work.)

The end result: Test results that don’t give me a second headache.  May the day of effective review games return to my classroom soon.  Until then, the Differentiated Review Day will get some stage time.

**in my subject area, in my current school, for my classes

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
Full Bio

Reading in Math: Deliberate Shifts

“Reading across the curriculum” is not some new kid in town. He’s a pretty established face even if he hasn’t always demanded center stage. I took a couple Teaching Reading classes to become a math teacher. How about you? That was at least ten years ago. Then, workshops and math/reading coaches pushed reading fictional texts with mathematical connections to students. Yes, I bought my copy of The Number Devil, and I read aloud a chapter to my 8th grade, non-interested math class. I had been told reading aloud would mesmerize even the toughest crowd. Despite the ingenious plot line, my students didn’t seem affected by the magic.
My experience: A large amount of time invested for little mathematical return.
At some point I am responsible for teaching math standards in a certain order. A novelist’s “pacing guide” is dictated by a compelling story– not quite the pacing guide that I’ve had dictated to me. The Number Devil still rests in a visible place on my “enrichment” shelf but admittedly is sorely neglected.

Thankfully, the new elevation of non-fiction texts by the Common Core Standards has changed the image of “reading in math” (at least in my area). “Decoding” is a new buzz word.
My new experience: A modest time investment is now producing more critical mathematical thinking. However, incorporating more reading strategies in teaching math requires deliberate shifts rather than drastic change.

Here’s one deliberate shift:
A typical math slide or excerpt from any math text                                       New slide
Where are the examples? Is the teacher unprepared?
Students are challenged, “After you finish writing, I want you to generate an example or non-example based on your reading of the key concept.”

Another small shift
(A conversation in my Algebra classroom from last week)
What does the title, “Simplifying Rational Expressions,” tell you before we go any farther?
(student response)
Simplifying- What is the base word?
Rational – Do you see the word ratio in there? What is a ratio? Give me an example of a ratio? Think “fractions” when you see the word “rational.”Exponential Expressions Practice Guide
Expressions – What’s the difference between expressions and equations?
Let’s string it altogether. Who can put this title in their own words?
(Revealing of first example) Does this first example match your understanding?

Whoa! Modest time investment? That was only the title! Yes, but it’s only the first few weeks of school.
They get better. They speed up. Their minds get the hang of naturally decoding math terms and steering their owner in the right direction. Given the privilege of teaching the same kids 85 minutes a day for 180 days, I love seeing the long term effect on students. Perhaps, if I hadn’t abandoned “The Number Devil” after that first fateful chapter, the same would have been true.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
Full Bio

Sunday Panel: Switching Back to School Mode

What are your best tips for managing the switch over from relaxing summer back to hectic school year (packing lunches, waking up early again, professional wardrobe)?Sunday Panel Sticky

profile pic2

Tara, Science in the City:  It is a tough transition, no matter what. To me, the most helpful thing that I can do is to make some meals ahead of time and freeze. (Now that I think about it, I think I wrote a post on this a while ago). I also think it helps to spend 10 minutes on the weekend and look at the upcoming week — what meals need to be quick or crock pot meals, what days do we need to bring something out of the ordinary somewhere. Get organized before the week starts.
OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKimberly, OC Beach Teacher: Switching back to the craziness of the school year is very challenging to me. I miss the relaxation of summer with less constraints on my time. However, since I live near the beach, I will sometimes take afternoon walks on the beach at the beginning of the school year. Usually the weather is fantastic- low humidity and in the 70s. Often, those short walks on the beach help me keep perspective and not get as overwhelmed by the hectic start to the school year!
Square image1Mrs. E Teaches Math: I am such a night owl, so getting up early is a shock to my system! I actually “practice” getting up early. About a week before school starts I begin getting up a little earlier every day. I also try to do as much to prepare for the week on Sunday. I make lunches and iron clothes on Sunday night to relieve a little stress during the week. Also, the crock pot can be your best friend! Find a few recipes that you like and plan on eating crock pot meals during the first week of school, until you get back in the swing of things.
Square image1Christina, The Daring English Teacher: Switching from summer to school can be a difficult transition. It usually takes me a week or two to get used to the change. To help me ease into the first weeks of school, I make sure that I have everything packed and ready to go the night before. I pack my teacher bag, my lunch, and make sure that I’ve emailed files from my home computer to my school email that I will need for the next day.
LanguageArtsClassroomLauralee,The Language Arts Classroom: “I have to practice! When I had kids, I included them in the practice round.
I would even go into work and clean around my classroom or pick up for a bit and then head home. Actually getting up was what I needed to do. If I had “”winged”” it the first day, I may have been late!”

What are your best tips for managing the switch over from relaxing summer back to hectic school year (packing lunches, waking up early again, professional wardrobe)?

PowToon Empowerment

I was preparing to teach rationalizing the denominator to my 9th grade students when the key concept took a life of its own in my head. I could see this party animal radical in the denominator playing mad riffs on his electric guitar. I could see the mathematical mastermind set the trap with the identity property of multiplication luring him in with one of his own kind. Dancing radicals due to mutual attraction, convergence, and then poof the disappearance of the radical in the denominator — problem solved (or should I say simplified).

What? Variables and numbers don’t dance for you? Frankly, the last nine years of teaching this particular topic, they didn’t dance for me either. This time, though, there was definite dancing.
My kids were going to love it, or so I thought.

Thanks Breann & Stephanie!

Thanks Breann & Stephanie!

I asked that student whose math notes look more like works of art than mathematical theorems to draw a “Radical 3” on the Smart board. She recruited a friend for help. Teenage girls move in pairs you know. The result ☛

The students already understood the mathematical procedure.
Story Time! The kids were all for it as I had in the past, with crude Smart Board drawings and poor acting, pulled off other great stories (the party story, Rio Grande story, bee story — all very mathematical). However, despite my best effort, the magic of the math in my head just wasn’t bursting forth. Epic Fail.

PowToon to the rescue!
This was going to take a little more effort than usual. Could PowToon get across the magic?
Let’s see what you think (Click on the picture to see the presentation in a new window. Sound is critical.):
PowToon Rationalize the Denominator
Okay, okay — it’s the first PowToon I’ve ever done. I admit there’s room for improvement. However, when I showed this to my students on Day 2, they got it. (Perhaps I showed it more than once since it happens so fast.)

What is PowToon? A PowerPoint alternative? Did you catch the line “Loading Awesomeness” as the presentation downloaded? Perhaps awesomeness is the most appropriate descriptor for PowToon. One PowToon under my belt definitely doesn’t make me an expert, but here’s what I do know:

  • It’s free.
  • It was easy enough to use that I didn’t need to attend any special workshop or presentation.
  • Did I mention it was free?

How did I do it:   Breann & Stephanie’s radical 3 was saved as a .png file straight from the SmartBoard (along with other mathematical symbols).  Other text, hearts, moving hands are all compliments of the PowToon dashboard.  I had a little learning curve with manipulating the timing of objects.  Once I realized the similarities to Movie Maker, I was home free.  While PowToon has free audio clips that you can use, this sound file is actually one that I first mixed in Audacity with my voice and free sound clips from FreeSound and then uploaded to PowToon. My only disappoint: I can’t get my 3’s to wiggle as much as I would like. But that’s the power of imagination, isn’t it?

What animated content do you have locked in your head? Maybe PowToon can help it out.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
Full Bio

Sunday Panel: Student-taught Lessons

Sunday Panel StickyIs there a lesson that a student taught you this year? What did you learn?

LanguageArtsClassroomLauralee,The Language Arts Classroom:
My students continuously teach me lessons.
I teach throughout the summer (at a camp) and a few weeks ago, a student was misbehaving. He wanted to interrupt, ignore the assignments, overall difficult. I tried giving him more attention, asking him what would make the situation better, everything.
After class, I decided to look up his medical form. Since this is a camp, we don’t have IEPs, etc. Sure enough – a diagnosis on his medical form made me conclude he probably had an IEP. I called him mom and asked her what I could do to make his day easier and she gave me a few ideas – mostly he had trouble with his lunch card.
Always research if you can, always do extra, always ask!
profile pic2Tara, Science in the City:  I teach in a very urban district.  We are in one of the most economically segregated areas.  Over several years of working in that environment, and reading and informing myself on poverty and urban education, I have come to the conclusion that our schools need to be truly integrated. This was reinforced this year by a conversation with a student.
My student after being in and out of foster care for many years, declared herself independent, works, gets SS, but lives on her own.  She has for a few years. She’s now 17 and about to graduate.  One day, she and I were talking about the difference that gives her such a drive to succeed, in the face of so many things against her. She said it was many things (her own internal desire, her church, etc). One thing that she attributed it to was her foster care. She has some bad experiences in foster care, but she says that she got a chance to see how other people live, and what a family can mean, or be.   For me, it was a very thought provoking and eye opening conversation, as well as strong support for at least exposing students to other lifestyles and backgrounds.
AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn, Algebra Simplified: This year I witnessed a student flounder in an IEP meeting when asked to sign his name to paperwork. He asked, “Does it have to be in cursive?” This was a high school freshman in my class. I hid my mortification and decided at that moment I have been too narrow-minded about what I am responsible for teaching my students. Another student voluntarily shared his passion for hockey with me on a regular basis (although I know little about hockey). He also shared his woes from other classes where he felt demotivated about learning. It was as if you could see the flame snuffed out in this kid. His transparency challenged me to think about how I foster the joy of learning in my students. Perspective, that’s what they gave me. I needed some. (P.S. The one kid can now sign his name in cursive.)

Is there a lesson that a student taught you this year? What did you learn?

Easy Add-ins improving Student Engagement

Do you have your preferred teaching style down? So do I.  Are your students reaching academic success? So are mine. Like any good teacher though, I am actively seeking to improve. So are you. Rather than completely overhaul what works, let me take the good base that I have and build upon it.Hand Raising Desk Slapping

What experience tells me: 
Passive students tend to
fall behind in my class.
What do you add into your lessons to improve student engagement?  Here are two, tried-and-true routines:

Hand Raising (non-traditional sense)
Are students really thinking about what is being said in class?  
Force students to commit to an opinion: Raise your hand if you agree. Raise your hand if you disagree. Raise your hand if you don’t know but are participating. It’s good to participate.

Check their pulse:  Raise your hand if you love your momma. Raise your hand if you’re breathing. Raise your hand if you want to go home.   Can you visualize the hands that go up on that last line? What academic purpose does it serve to have students admit to wanting to go home?  Little, unless you value that the majority of students just responded to a verbal prompt and voluntarily chose to be actively involved in the lesson. Perhaps the student zoning out suddenly sees the entire class putting their hand up, raises his as well, and mentally ponders/chides, “Why are we raising our hands? I better start paying attention.”  Perhaps the platform for student voice (albeit canned and highly structured) earns the exercise a point.  Running these type of statements in trios hopefully provides everyone with an entry point. Personally, knowing that students are still listening and processing what is being pushed out is reassuring.

Do you ever sense that your secondary students get tired of raising their hands?   Surely an active response can take other forms.  Our elementary counterparts mix it up with clapping.   Poetry units at the secondary level often welcome snapping.  In my high school Algebra class, a resounding slap of the desk does the trick. Clapping, Snapping, Slapping — it really is all on the same train.

Desk Slapping
In my opinion, slapping requires the least investment of the student (only one hand, no fancy finger configurations), has sound appeal, and is less socially taboo for teenagers (perhaps because of its affiliation with violence).
One rule: No repetitive slaps.
Some of the more refined 9th grade classes give their desk a little love pat.  However, a few classes will truly SLAP their desk with oomph.  This almost in unison thunder clap invigorates both teacher and students.  As I like to say (and my students groan), it supports the learning momentum.  Weak slappers sometimes improve at this request:  Slap your desk if you were right.  A prideful nature should be exploited.  Are you considering trying out the technique for the first time? Use in conjunction with a question that has a high probability of correct response in the middle of a difficult lesson. (Don’t explain, just call it out. Repetitive slaps can be channeled later on. Sales pitches can be given later as well.)

Like any novelty, either of the above techniques overused will lose its charm.

What easy student involvement techniques do you use in your classroom?  

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
Full Bio