The Question

In science, my 8th graders identified the topics of their year-long inquiry projects. There is a nice range of ideas including:

  • pH of rain  (Will this prove or disprove the Taiwanese myth regarding acid rain?)
  • amount of mosquitoes / biting midges on campus
  • water quality of the campus pond
  • soil quality of different campus locations
  • seasonal changes of trees
  • amounts of particulate matter in air throughout campus

The process of moving from a topic to a question challenged many students. In general, the questions were quite vague as students struggled with developing a relationship between variables. I attempted a round table discussion where a group presented its ideas and the other students provided items that they wondered about, but I don’t think that much of value was generated. My goal is to generate a culture of questioning and ownership with these projects and this will take time. We’re off to build background at the moment. Students have a bulletin board space outside the class for data and are building web pages. Over the next week or so groups will design procedures and I hope that they are collecting data by mid-September.


Hours of Sleep

At times, I fantasize about sleep. Oh how the thought of stretching out, falling asleep and staying that way for 8, 9, or 10 hours is so enticing. Instead, I can work the idea of sleep into a problem and hopefully encourage students to get to bed at a reasonable time.

My opening problem for my sixth graders this week was:

On average, I sleep about 8 hours 15 minutes each day. So, during September, I will likely sleep for 8.15 x 31= 252.65 or about 250 hours.

I told students that my wife (their humanities teacher) disagreed with my calculations and hoped that they could settle our debate by agreeing with me or letting me know where I erred. (I came across a similar problem while looking over the Mathematics Assessment Project site which appears to have some good resources.)

To get started with class this day, I had students working individually. My plan was to have them work a bit independently and then collaborate their ideas once each student got into the problem. The 31 days was picked up on pretty quickly and for one student that was the only identified problem. A change to 30 days and then he was finished. The rest became involved in the problem and didn’t appear to want the collaboration time so I changed gears. As students wrapped up the problem, I asked them to make their thinking explicit as they each transferred to a whiteboard. This change moved the problem from a quick exercise to a focal point as a rich discussion ensued.

Writing 15 minutes as 0.15 was the key error for students to identify as we discuss ratios and the idea of “the whole”. Different pathways included:

I liked how this student laid out her thinking.

  • putting 8 hours into minutes for the month, adding 15 and then converting back to hours and minutes
  • moving from 8.15 to 8.25 hours as it was realized that 15 minutes is in fact a quarter of an hour

A round table whiteboard discussion was held to wrap up the problem. Each student brought his/her whiteboard to the circle and held it up for all others to see. A few solutions were essentially identical so we grouped those students. The task posed was for us to find where differences in problems remained. Students began to critically look at the work of others. The person whose work was on the whiteboard was in charge of the discussion and could accept suggestions and hints from others. Through this analysis, we found a student who had realized the errors but then worked the problem with 31 days while fixing the error of 0.15 minutes. Another student had good reasoning and it took the others some time to realize that a division error (decimal in the wrong place) was the culprit. Solutions that were similar in process but not in appearance were also flushed out. In the end, students were provided the opportunity to explain their thoughts, constructively critique others and revise solutions. I relished the opportunity to listen to the students talk math while only providing a rare nudge.

One of my goals this year is to create a community of mathematical discourse where it errors are fantastic and provide avenues of learning. By slowing the class down and opening up for the thoughts and discussions of students, I took a good step towards this community.

Be Explicit & Be less helpful

I don’t see these two ideas on opposite ends of a continuum and hope to go further this year in incorporating both into my teaching. The vast majority of my students speak a language other than English at home (head nod to Mandarin) and on occasion I’ve replayed the blank looks from earlier classes wondering where our paths diverted. Countless possibilities exist but, time after time, language is found as a culprit. I can be vague. My language, which may work just fine in the States, leaves ambiguity in its meaning. As a result, students are unsure. This can result in directions repeated a second or third time as I change words to find those that suits the student.

At the end of last school year, Krista and I sat down to a large project focused on the direction (or process) words used in academics. Beginning with first grade standards, we trudged through picking out those words not tied to specific content but found across subject areas. I was actually quite surprised at the number of words found in the elementary standards that my middle schoolers struggle with. This year, I plan to be explicit regarding these words. (A few recent content-specific preassessments again found issues with the process words. Asking students to first highlight words they do not fully understand before asking for assistance revealed many colored direction word.) My word wall has started. I can make sure that students have strong understandings in the words that provide expectations.

At the same time, I hope to follow Dan Meyer’s motto of be less helpful. Former students have expressed frustration from time to time regarding my habit of answering their question with another question but I feel as if there are more areas to remove layers of support.

  • More student design of experiments
  • Embrace struggle. Let more time pass before providing assistance.
  • Continue using rich problems that allow students to find various entry points and pathways.

There will be plenty of times where the need is to be explicit or the need is to be less helpful. The challenge is to find the balance and to make that split second decision.

At school

Image Source –  for the love of learning

Why do current systems establish these poles? My girls are young and are just beginning to uncover the world. Everything is new as they move from sitting to painful movement to speed crawl and those first few steps. They learn and are eager to learn. Nonstop. I enjoy conversations that bring wonder and curiosity into the classroom and hope to provide my students with the opportunities to eagerly pursue learning.

Parent Night (SBG explained)

Open up the doors, here comes the parents! A week has passed for this school year and it is time to welcome parents into the classroom. Two years ago, as a new teacher at the school, my room was packed during each session. Come check out the new guy was the motto. Last year, I was old news. Few parents came to hear my plans for the year. Maybe the whirlwind 10 minute sessions keep some away.

This year, a new online grading system is being put into place and will hopefully draw larger numbers. I have 10 minutes for each class. What would I like to say? I would want to spend time with the parents learning about their child. What lights a fire of interest for their student? What do they love more than anything? What do they do when not faced with a school day schedule and responsibilities? I would like to talk about the amazing journey that their children and are slowly embarking upon. Oh, the list can go on and on of what I would like to talk with parents about.

Instead, the 10 minutes will flash by. Introductions are a blur and, here is the kicker, Krista (wife & 6th grade teaching partner) and I don’t grade like other teachers. This is year two in my standards-based grading experience. Last year slapped down a steep learning curve and I hope to fine tune this year. But, Wednesday night is Wednesday night and parents want to know how their students will be graded. At least with a SBG philosophy, I feel that there is a place for discussion that centers around student progress instead of percentages. Here is my general presentation:

Whiteboards – dipping my toe in

Last school year, I followed many great physics blogs (oh so unlike my high school physics class or the ones in college. Seriously, it was believed that a person without physics could come in and be successful due to the multiple guess format. Just buy the previous course packs and you’re set). Ok, enough digression. Physics teachers seem to be getting it dialed in through modeling instruction and the use of whiteboards. I ordered a pile of whiteboards for this school year and am working out ways to use them.

The whiteboards are roughly 2′ x 2.5′ and offer plenty of space for a few students to gather around and work together. I’ve used them with my sixth graders for a few problems during the first week. Student conversations about math are higher than when each student is busy scribbling in his or her notebook. They ache to yank the cap off of the pen and write on the board. Even quieter students seem to be more comfortable sharing with the pen.

I am fortunate to have extra space in my room so students move out of their seats to get to table clusters containing the whiteboards. At this point, they choose to carry their chair along or work standing. A few bring a chair though most stand, pace or shift around as they problem solve. A nice dynamic is created as the students sit or stand as desired and think in the way that suits them best.

Organization and display are issues. A majority of the students are “well-trained” to solely focus on an answer. The process seems secondary. My task is to slow them down. Bring the thinking out and have group members articulate their thoughts through words, graphics and mathematical expressions.

What about class notes? If a class revolves around in-depth thinking of a problem worked out on a whiteboard, what will the students look back on later? Well, I’m not sure how many sixth graders truly review their notes but the focus is on the process of mathematical thought. I can provide key elements to students for their notebooks and will offer time for them to capture the day’s ideas and/or work. It’s a start…The next step is to begin work on student presentations using their work. I’m hoping that this focus increases the need for thinking to be made explicit.

For good resources check out Frank Noschese and Kelly O’Shea

Syllabus Revision

Tick tock. The beginning of the school year is just around the corner. Unlike the September start in the Pacific Northwest, we get going the first week of August. Reading John Burk’s Syllabus Challenge led me to a makeover of my own syllabus which had been a modification of previous years. Blah. Pages of text that students quickly fed to the lurking backpack monster (this thing has been starved for a couple of months so it quickly munches up the death sentence of summer).

My goal was one page of essentials. I’m still trying to sell a shift to Standards-Based Grading but my explanation met with a good dose of trimming. Too much explanation last year led to confusion. Assessment is a starting point for conversation and I want a grading system that quickly moves away from a score to where a student is on a learning continuum. Here is the current version…