How are those whiteboards coming?

The first quarter of the school year is in the books. Some things are going well but there are a few items that I need to process through. In general, whiteboarding added a strong dimension to class discussions. Particularly for my math students, whiteboarding moved group problem solving and whole group discussions to a new level. Student inhibitions to write something down or to share seem to diminish when equipped with a marker and an erasable slate. I can quickly assess where a group of students are on an idea as I circulate around the room. I’m loving it.

But…In my physical science class, I haven’t found a good recipe for whiteboard use. A goal of mine is to place more of an emphasis on discussion of data and what students observe during experimentation. I’ve tried to use whiteboards as an experiment command center with limited success. I feel that class is getting bogged down during experiments and and students are left with data on the whiteboard, unable to continue work. I believe that part of the problem lies in the amount of time that it takes this group of students to accomplish tasks. Compared to previous years, we are moving much slower that I have in the past. (Unfortunately, this rate is not accompanied by amazing class discussions that magically make time disappear.) Speed bumps:

  • This bunch of students is quite chatty and transitions take a long time.
  • Lack of outside work. I generally avoid much work outside of the class but at times ask students to prep for an upcoming class. This could mean creating data tables for the upcoming experiment. Many students come to class empty-handed.
  • Off-task behavior + a general slowness- Even when groups appear to be working on the task at hand, items are completed at a snail’s pace.

Looking forward, what am I going to do? Math class success with whiteboards stems partially from the fact that problem are relatively short, especially if compared to a lab. Students process a video, image or text on the whiteboard and then develop solutions. Conversations are focused to the problem at hand. Lab experiences involve much more – students need to create a procedure, decide how to collect data, run the experiment, record data and then process. With the second quarter, my whiteboard focus will be limited to processing of data when the activity is finished. Using the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning framework, students should have a focus (similar to the success in math) and adequate space to provide a claim and include supporting evidence. Round table discussions can then be used to flush out each group’s reasoning. It’s a continuous process, right?

Estimates from the Fishbowl

Immediately using ideas from a workshop helps me carry momentum forward. As I wrote in my last post, I spent the previous weekend discussing how to make learning more accessible for English language learners. Multiple strategies were modeled and I chose to use a fishbowl activity in my math class today. My goal revolved around increasing student conversations about mathematics. I wanted them to talk about their thoughts and for other students to observe how a problem can move forward through group discussion. With absences, a small class of seven students entered the room and each learner spent a round inside and on the outside of the fishbowl.

In terms of contents, I have had my eyes on Andrew Stadel’s great new Estimation 180 blog as a means to kick off regular estimation practice. Today, Mr. Stadel’s height was the first estimation with four students sitting around one whiteboard. Peering into the bowl, I eagerly joined the remaining students to observe and record the math processing.

“Do you know how tall you are?” One student was fairly confident that she measures 140 cm. A student grabbed a couple of meter sticks and stacked them end-to-end. “200 cm. Hmmm, that seems really tall. Maybe that is the upper number.”

My Mom is really tall and I’m up to her shoulders.”

“Really, well let’s see how tall you are.” I was happy to hear this check. Students made some measurements and decided that the boy’s mother was closer to 160 cm. 

As group processing slowed, I asked each student to make his or her own estimate and provide reasoning.

The estimations ranged from 180 to 190 cm. Some reasoning included:

I think the fence must measure 100 cm. I then found out that the length from his toes to his belly is longer than from his belly to head so I doubled 100 cm and subtracted 10.

I believe that the bush (located in the photograph) does not come to his hips and that his hips (student measure height of her own) would be about 90 cm. So it is a little more than double.

After a debrief where the observers shared their thoughts and the “fish” shared what it was like to work on a problem while being watched, groups switched places for the second estimation: Ms. Stadel’s height. I again heard great conversations. The observation group picked up what they believed to be key math ideas: using ratios, number lines, making calculations and explaining why, using previous (Mr. Stadel’s height from the earlier estimation) answers, and halving fractions – halves, quarters, eighths… The actual height in this case was 165 cm and student estimations ranged from 163 to 166 cm.

To wrap up, I asked students what they learned about the process of math from this activity. Many students wrote that it was important for them to see that there are many different ways to solve problems. A few also commented on the need to respect the ideas of others and to allow people to share their ideas.

I usually bounce from group to group listening to snippets of math processing and rarely find the wonderful opportunity to observe students work through an entire idea. I enjoyed it and will look forward to more opportunities to join students on the outside of the fish bowl.

ELL Workshop

Wow! It is amazing what a bout of a family-wide stomach flu can do to a person! The week was a rough one but ended with lots of positive aspects in addition to a healthy wife, two healthy kids and one healthy dog (yep, we all got something). Onwards we go!

Friday and Saturday found me at a school-wide professional development workshop  presented by Jon Nordmeyer. The topic centered on meeting the needs of English Language Learners (ELL) and Jon engaged us through a nice mixture of practice and theory.

What am I taking back to my class?

  • Be Deliberate is written large across my materials package. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me the need that I, as the teacher, help students filter through what is important. Deliberate also refers to the word choices I make in class, the pacing of class and the time spent previewing, engaging with and summarizing ideas.
  • Visible Content Goals – Continue posting these on the class web page and review with students at the beginning of class. Return to the goals at the end of class. Where are we?
  • Visible Language Goals – Continue posting language goals and discussing these with students. I have a ways to go on this one. Students are writing each day in both math and science classes but I need to pull bits and pieces together into a coherent flow.
  • Am I in the front too long? Oh, I hope not. I like to believe that students have a substantial amount of talk time and processing time in each class but I want to pay more attention do this. ELLs need to work with new vocabulary and practice verbalizing ideas. After a quarter, I think my classroom environment is a safe place for students to talk but are voices equally heard? (question topic for student Q1 review survey…)
  • Varied engagement points – Jon did a great job reminding me of the multiple strategies to get students talking and moving. I need to regularly work these into lessons to expose students to conversations and explaining ideas in different ways.

The conference provided a good opportunity for me to think about my practice. Jon’s energy and enthusiasm surrounding best practices for students rejuvenated my teaching spirit after a rough week. I’m looking forward to being more deliberate with my students as I try to help them learn math/science in English.