Why I Do What I Do

“You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time.” This is Dan Meyer, quoted in my last entry.  I’m passionate about my job, and my students. I work with economically disadvantaged students in a district with declining enrollment. It is sometimes difficult to express to non-teachers the challenges these students face.

“The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown v. Board of Education” by Richard Rothstein explains these challenges better than I ever could. Compared to students of higher economic status, my students have language challenges at home and their parents have less education. They have less access to enrichment opportunities at all ages. They get less adult attention, and have poorer health.

As to why students continue to live in racially isolated neighborhoods in the twenty first century, listen to “House Rules”. It’s a legacy of generations of discriminatory housing policy. Just because things are better now doesn’t magically erase everything that happened in the past. Consequently, some students – through no fault or achievement of their own – are better poised for success, just based on who they are, and who their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were.

Which all brings me to the thing that made me jump for joy today:  Why Interactive Notebooks are a Tool For Equity and Social Justice. I’ve mentioned how glad I’m am that I used interactive student notebooks this year. I’ve viewed them as a way to teach note-taking and studying skills to a population that is sorely lacking. What I didn’t realize is how much more ISNs can do for my student population. This article also touches on another challenge my students face: childhood trauma.

I’m reminded of the advice my sister, also a teacher, gave me when I first started out. She told me that my job is to love my students first of all. I am to give them a safe place to be, and to model appropriate adult behavior. I am to encourage them and gently guide them into responsibility. Only after all that is my job to teach math.

It goes back to the Hierarchy of Needs. Students can’t fully engage with education until their basic needs are met. And for lower-income, minority, immigrant, and disadvantaged youth, those needs are less likely to be met than for students of higher socioeconomic status. As educators, we must work to close the gap as best we can, and to make sure our students don’t fall through the cracks.

More Thoughts on Technology

I have spent an incredibly frustrating few days, and most of those have to do with technology.

I’m teaching a Trigonometry unit in my Geometry classes. As I mentioned in my previous post, not all students have calculators. I’ve given them each a trig table, but the inequity is heartbreaking. Those that have a calculator – even if it can’t do Trig functions – have a clear advantage over those that don’t. Those that don’t own a calculator have to do long division for each problem, and that takes time. I’m giving the unit test tomorrow, and I anticipate that many students won’t finish in the given hour because of their lack of technology. Even more dishearteningly, many will just skip the problems that require long division.

As I went to make copies of tomorrow’s test, I was confronted with three broken photocopiers. Our controller, a wonderful woman who makes our budget stretch and stretch, reassured me that the contract on these chronically malfunctioning copiers is ending at the end of this school year, and we should have new ones next year. That’s great, but in the meantime, as we gear up for finals, we don’t have reliable photocopiers.

The cherry on top of my frustration sundae is our new student information software. Unlike our old software, the new software doesn’t allow me access to student attendance records. I have two students that are cutting class. I’ve referred both of them to my lead teacher and counselor in the past, but noting has been done. Now the ball has been volleyed back in to my court – I’ve been asked to call home on both students. But I don’t have the information to have a productive conversation. If their parent (or guardian, in this case) asks, “What days did they attend last week?” I don’t have that information. “Are they attending their other classes?” I don’t have that information. The people who have access to that info (lead teachers and counselors) are too swamped to make the call. I’m happy to make the calls, but I don’t have the information.

I love my job. But today I’ve had to remind myself that I CHOSE this job. I chose to work in a job that has notoriously few resources, where everyone is stretched to the limit. I need to accept that.

Equity and Technology

I’ve been thinking a lot about equity in the classroom. As I mentioned, one of the hot buttons for me as we work through the textbook adoption process is technology. In short, my students don’t have it, and our school has so little technology that  digital resources are essentially useless.

This started with calculators in my classroom. I allow them. The school has TI-Nspire calculators, but they are only for the IB students and the Pre – IB Algebra 2 students. So regular Algebra 2 students and all other students don’t get school issued calculators.

That means that if the students want to use a calculator, they have to provide one themselves. This is a student population that has difficulty providing pencils sometimes. So getting a calculator, even at the dollar store, is impractical. I buy them myself and sell them at a loss (fifty cents for a calculator that I spent a dollar on).

So not every student has  a calculator. But the Geometry and Algebra 2 Texts are written with the assumption that all kids have a calculator (the Algebra 1 text less so). This means I have to skip some practice problems and activities, and substitute ones that don’t use a calculator or are less challenging.

Now take this situation and amplify it. That’s the situation with technology. This came up last week as we got presentations from the two textbook publishers whose Integrated Math 1 products have made the final cut in the adoption process. One had a huge number of digital resources – some of them really great. And if we chose to pilot their program rather than adopt it, they would be willing to provide all those digital resources to every math teacher in the district.

Which would be great, but my computer at school constantly freezes up and can barely handle the programs I run on it now. For student use, there is only one laptop cart for an SLC of twenty-two teachers. If I want to use, for example, GeoGebra with the students on the laptops, I have to log to each computer to download the program using the very slow school network. As soon as we log off at the end of class, GeoGebra is automatically wiped from the laptops. The whole process needs to be repeated the next time they’re used.

The end result is that I don’t do technology activities with my students – ever. It’s just too much bother. I realize that it is my responsibility to figure this out, and probably waste a few class periods while I’m at it, but the benefit doesn’t seem to outweigh the hassle.

There are more repercussions as well. For example, flipped classrooms are all the rage right now. But a flipped structure is impossible for my students, most of whom don’t have internet at home. They have smartphones but they aren’t allowed in class (for very good reasons that I agree with, but that I won’t get in to right now) and again, it’s an equity issue since only some of the students have them. Ditto for Khan Academy or any other digital resource.

Digital education resources are out there. They may be great. They may be exactly what my disadvantaged students need. But my students, my school, and my district are too disadvantaged to utilize them. And the achievement gap grows.

Survey Says…

I began my algebra remediation classes today.  I’ve taught this in the past, and truth be told, I really like it.  The classes are very small so I can give each student the individualized, personalized attention they need.  The first year I was responsible for remediation I tried to teach it like a regular class with units and quizzes.  But I’ve since realized that the small class size means that I can customize what I do for each student.

This year, I decided to start with a survey.  I based mine on Mathy McMatherson’s.  I got some interesting results.

Question 1:  What makes math hard?

I don’t like negative numbers at all, they confuse me a lot.

Math is hard to me because it has a lot of stuff to learn and it’s too much thinking.

It’s not math that I don’t like it’s the way some teachers teach it.  Some go too fast or some go too slow or some rely on the book too much.

I find it challenging because I don’t comprehend math fast.  Like I need it taught step by step.

Something that makes math class hard is the way they teach it, because sometimes they go too fast and teach the same thing like 5 different ways and that’s where it gets confusing.

Question 2:  Do you think intelligence is fixed or can change with effort?

I think it’s just something determined because they listen and get it maybe they love math or something.

I believe that it’s in the middle because if math is all you do maybe it will click; maybe you’d go from F to B or an A.  But then the more I think about it some people are just good with numbers and some aren’t.

I honestly think that everyone is smart. Some people just don’t want to try.  There are a lot of people that can put the effort out there and try.  Me, I just don’t do anything.

Question 3: What do you want from this class?

I want to get better at math by learning better study habits.  Maybe less worksheets and more notes.

I want more activities.  I want to pass with a B at least.  I want to understand what is being taught.

To stay focused on what I am doing and take everything more seriously.

Try my best to all my work that they give me.

I would like for everyone to feel comfortable around everybody in the class.  We could also do like group work and have people introduce themselves to everybody.

They are very self aware and know their own strengths and weaknesses.  They know what they have to do, but they don’t know how to do it.  They also realized they were lost in previous classes, but were powerless to change it (for example, they know they couldn’t slow the class down).

We’ve been doing goal-setting in our Small Learning Community and while I had my Geometry class set goals for the semester today, I wanted to hold off with this group.  These survey results give me a great jumping-off point.

Looking Forward; Looking Back

Today is the first school day of 2014!  We are heading toward the end of the semester.  Two weeks of review, then Midterms/Finals.

I’ve been doing Interactive Student Notebooks, as detailed by Math = Love and Everybody is a Genius .  I started these the second month of school.

What I like about ISNs is that I have to really think about what it is I want my students to take away from each lesson.  The format requires me to chunk concepts down.  I like that it gives students something different to do in class (cut, color, and paste) and engages everyone.  It has slowed down my teaching so my pacing is more in line with where my students are at.

What I’ve seen is that students who do well on Notebook check also tend to do well in class.  My number of failing students has declined as well, with the failing students either those who came in low skilled (i.e., were in my remediation class last year) or who are attendance issues.

The downside is that it seems to work better for Geometry than Algebra 1.  I’m not sure why this is.  It may be that my Algebra 1 students are more varied in ability and knowledge.  It may be that my Algebra 1 is a double block.  It may be that I am not varying the type of practice enough.

Which brings me to my next concern:  Even with my Geometry students, they still struggle with higher-level problems that require creative thinking.  The plus side is that they are getting the basics, but the minus is that their thinking is stopping there.

In my POD (my math teacher group) we have decided to address this by concentrating our review for the finals on higher-level tasks.  This we will do for the next two weeks.  The idea is that now that they have the basics, we can build on that knowledge to deepen their understanding.

Random Thoughts for a Wednesday

Today I did the Sweet Work with Fractions activity from NCTM. It went okay, not a disaster but not a rousing success, either. It made them think, but unfortunately the “level of concern” was not high enough. They are just not good enough with fractions for the activity to go quickly, and without the concern of being called on soon, they got bored and side conversations sprung up. This may be a good one to repeat using one of the variations because now they know what to expect and, hopefully, after seeing their scored answer sheets with the rubric I made, will make them better understand what the expectation is. I am starting to think that some things need to be done several times to work.

As I stated in this blog post, I decided to break up the block by teaching different benchmarks in the different hours. So while first hour is integers and fractions, second hour is equations. We just completed one-step equations, and so today as a review, I did One-Step Equation Bingo. That was fun, although pseudo-compliance is a problem because they can pretend to be working the problem but really not be doing anything. Still, it is a good activity to have in my bag of tricks, good for a shortened day or sub day.

On to Geometry: I completely forgot to teach angle addition. I taught segment addition, and then I ran right off into supplementary and complimentary angles. I just realized my mistake in the middle of class today, so I may go ahead and circle back tomorrow.

Also, I was thinking about changing my bell work but now I’m reconsidering. Since it’s pretty basic, the students ARE getting better at it as they have more practice. Having 20 questions or so means that they are all working, no matter how early they get in to class. I can stop as soon as I want (lately I’ve only been taking the first 5 or 6 minutes of class). So it is working.

What’s not working is the kids who finish early. I’m trying the green pen thing, but they aren’t really “down” with helping each other once their done. I’ve spoken to other teachers, who confirm that our students are reluctant to pair-share, discuss, or help one another. I suppose it is ordinary shyness. But that is an element I’ll need to think up a solution to.

And We’re Off

I’ve already taken my first sub day.

My five-year old picked up a stomach bug and was sick all night Thursday night, so I had to stay home with him Friday. Yes, the fourth day of school. I didn’t even have any sub plans made. Luckily for me I have home internet now and my awesome school secretary let me email her the plans and she made copies for me.

However, by Sunday morning I was feeling the bug, and by Sunday night I was laid out by it. I dragged myself to school Monday because I really didn’t want to miss another day. I made it through but let’s just say there wasn’t a lot of Socratic Method happening. I came home and just crashed out. Let’s hope I’m more myself today.