January 7, 2017

TMC Site

In high school I took a tech ed class that included web design, CAD, java and architectural design. I enjoyed the class so much I arranged with the teacher to do an independent study on the web and architectural design topics the following. While I think I might have enjoyed continuing my studies in either of those topics to lead to eventual careers, I love teaching and am glad I ended up here. However, it's still fun to get the chance to dive back into those worlds on occasion. When I was in high school websites were a lot simpler, google didn't even exist back then... I made a website for my dad's office using only text files in notepad and saved it on floppy discs. So beyond the opportunity to walk down memory lane, doing some web design forces me to learn new things like CSS. As a teacher I appreciate opportunities to stretch my brain and exercise my problem solving skills. It's fun to be the student again for a while and remind myself what it's like to be trying to understand something new.

So, check out TMathC.com (newly updated to not have any proprietary words in the domain) and let me know what needs fixing. Kudos go to Glenn for the wiki and the majority of the content, my job was mostly to copy and paste from the old site once I got the layout adjusted to my liking.

p.s. This is my second post this month, I might be getting back into a routine! Join all the eager bloggers who resolved to write more this month/year on Explore MTBoS.

January 1, 2017

Best of the Math Teacher Blogs

Happy new year! I hope the first hours of 2017 have treated you well. As you reflect back on 2016 we hope that you'll join us in recalling the posts which most moved you and share them for "The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2016." Submission form here!

Last year we collected 55 posts for "The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2015" via tweets and submissions to create a book of posts from 2015 (11 stories, 11 tasks, 9 teacher learning reports, 24 thoughts about teaching). We raised $897 which will be donated to TMC.

This year we have 36 submissions so far. We hope to get more from David's #bestofMTBoS2016. It's not too late for you to submit your favorite post you read or wrote in 2016. Submission form here!

However, one of my new years resolutions is to ask for help. I have a bad habit of getting excited for things and then signing myself up for more than I can handle. So, in order to make this work we'd love some help. If anyone is able to volunteer to do any of these tasks please leave a comment!

  • merging spreadsheets for submissions and permissions
  • cross referencing hashtag(s) with the spreadsheet
  • cross referencing Michael's post with the spreadsheet
  • organizing posts into balanced chapters
  • moving information into pressbooks
  • editing html (match formatting, resize images)
  • editing text (light editing for length)
  • cover design
  • deciding how best to use the funds (the initial plan was to support teachers in attending TMC but we haven't figured out the details)

December 23, 2016

Changing the Conversation to Mastery

My district is transitioning to Standards Based Grading and I'm so impressed with how well planned the rollout is. Everything isn't going perfectly, but if you're familiar with the inner workings of any schools with limited funding you probably have seen them jumping from one bandwagon to the next, picking up whatever initiative has a grant and then dropping it for the next new thing. That's typically the case here as well, but I went to a planning meeting summer of 2015 (my reflection at the time) where administrators outlined a plan that they had clearly been working hard on. It's nearly 2017 and we're still on track! Just to be working on one thing for that long would be huge but this is a downright miracle.

At this point the elementary and middle schools have transitioned to standards based report cards since they were already using (sometimes confusing) categories rather than letter grades. The Algebra 1 team is using standards based grading but translating that into a single average so we can continue to use traditional report cards. Next year the 9th grade will be moving to standards based report cards and the following year the rest of the high school will join us. There are a lot of moving parts to make this transition, and some of the work is tedious (rewriting curriculum maps yet again to fit the new language) but the shift we are working on right now is communicating progress with students and changing the conversation to mastery rather than passing.

Right before report cards, and again at sports tryouts, I saw a surge of students coming after school to improve their grades. However many students were looking to get the 60% needed to be passing and therefore eligible for sports. Some students were aiming for a 70% because their parents don't accept less than a C. I do have students with high expectations for themselves who are aiming for the A but they're not the norm.

The Algebra 1 team took one of our common planning blocks to go visit the middle school. We saw an english classroom and a math classroom. We were looking for examples of how teachers communicated with students about their progress. We saw class data on the wall, student tracking sheets and posters highlighting the priority standards. I wasn't a fan of the teachers posting and talking about CCSS codes (A-REI.1.a). As a team we gave each priority standard a name that allows us to refer to them with ease and reinforce mathematical vocabulary.  We are working on a system to identify each skill, right now we're leaning toward 4A being our shorthand for Standard 4 Skill A but I'm hoping that would be limited to my personal data tracking. But even though we didn't agree with the labeling, we loved the bar graphs in classrooms showing the percent of students who had reached mastery. We also took ideas from the student tracking sheets we saw during our visit.

The idea of drawing a new bar on three graphs for every assignment sounded far too overwhelming. Not to mention updating them with every retake or late submission. So I decided to use the students' averages for each entire standard. My version. Then every week or two I'll update the class progress. Since the priority standards are my categories in my gradebook (as opposed to averaging tests and homework separately, I average all equations assignments) it's a quick process to count up the number of kids with an 80% or higher and update the chart. The units we have completed are colored in since students can only gain mastery by doing retakes. The units that are ongoing the bars are made of sticky notes since students may lose mastery as they complete more assessments. (Also technically they can't have mastery of the whole standard until we've assessed all the skills.) At the middle school they laminated the charts, wrote titles in dry or wet erase markers and made bars out of tape. I wasn't sure I'd like my charts so they didn't seem worth laminating. Maybe next year? Also I wasn't about to laminate the versions with the random line across the middle from the copier!

When I showed the charts to my administrator I told him to look at the format but not the data. He was ecstatic about the charts. Then understandably concerned about the data. But we had a good conversation about how this is changing the conversation. If the bars were for passing rather than mastery the data would look much more encouraging. I wasn't sure how my students would react to the information but my C Block class was motivated rather than discouraged. It's interesting to note that my D block is a contained special ed group, they have 90 minutes with me every day. C block is an on level course but has a high percentage of ELL's. F Block is honors and with them I emphasized that everyone should be mastering every unit, but our first goal is to have 80% of the class mastering each unit. In the other classes the goal is to make progress toward that 80% as well but I didn't need to make a specific goal for them because they recognized they were behind. It's not a competition and it's not calling anyone out, instead I hope to create a class culture where everyone encourages each other to aim for mastery.

During the last class before vacation I gave students a motivational speech in disguise. We did some data analysis review in the form of looking at an imaginary student's scores. Data analysis handout. After they finished that assignment I handed back tests and gave them time to do corrections and other make up work. Most students took advantage of the time, an impressive feat on December 21 and 22!

Next up will be implementing the student progress tracker. When we return from break they will record their scores so far and check off skills as they master them. At this point I'm planning to give trackers out for this unit and all the units going forward. For students who haven't reached mastery in a previous standard then we can use a progress tracker to decide what they need to do to get there.

December 20, 2016

Weekly Homework: Digging Deeper

Note: this is a follow up to yesterday's post that I wrote back at the end of October.

In the weeks since I wrote that last post I have given a few more substantial weekly homework assignments. One was on cell phone plans, another on credit card payments and a third on bias in jury selection. I didn't love the credit card assignment, mostly because we haven't studied exponential functions yet so the calculations were tedious and the meaning got lost (low payments might seem good but you get killed with interest if that's all you can afford).

It was interesting that despite how "real world" cell phones are to kids, they didn't know the vocabulary of how a payment plan works. Some students argued that an option was good because it had more installments - turns out they thought that meant how many things they could install on their phone! After clarifying vocabulary we were able to have a conversation about how Option D is the cheapest if you have $225 to spare but that's often not the case so people who have less cash on hand end up spending more in the end.

Then over Thanksgiving break I finally found a good introductory assignment to racial bias when listening to Radiolab. This assignment looked a little different than the others because on the front I had to start with an explanation of how jury selection works. Then I pulled a short quote where I wanted students to focus their calculations. But to write the paragraph, and really to make their claim, I felt that students should have more context. So on the back (so it wouldn't distract them during their calculations) I pulled some quotes from a NYTimes article and suggested they listen to the podcast that got me interested in the topic in the first place. The assignment

I pulled these student quotes for a few reasons. They provided a chance to talk about all vs. on average in a few contexts (all lawyers are racist, all blacks sympathize with the defendant). A few people asked about when and where this was (60's in the south vs. 2016 in the north?) and it gave students the opportunity to rebut - there's still racism today, even in Massachusetts. Finally, two quotes reference different sections of the article and one references the podcast. I wanted to clarify the information that students read and heard as the vocabulary isn't the most student friendly (many of my ninth graders had a first language that was not English and several of them have language based learning disabilities). I'm considering switching my routine to going over the previous week's assignment the first class of the week and then immediately handing out this week's assignment so students can ask clarifying questions. But I really want them to try reading on their own. Maybe sticking with going over the previous week's assignment at the end of the week and then specifically asking students if they have clarifying questions about the current assignment is the better way to go. 

This week I had more students ask "Is there a right answer?" than any other week. I chose to interpret that as a sensitivity to the gravity of the choice while being overwhelmed with the information. I reminded them that there is never a correct choice to weekly homeworks as long as they provide reasons to support their claim. I also reassured them that this is complicated, which is exactly why people are researching it!

I would love suggestions for more articles similar to this one that would help facilitate discussions around similarly important topics. This week is about the (slightly less serious but still important to me) effects of spaying and neutering your pets - the kittens are reproducing at alarming rates on a farm! I'm feeling thankful that I teach where I do so I'm allowed to give assignments that support my crazy liberal viewpoints, and am also working to be mindful of the amount of bias I have. It's so important to me that students think for themselves and I do really mean it when I tell students that there is no right answer. But I recognize that there's inherent bias in the topics I choose and the data that I present. 

December 19, 2016

Weekly Homework

 *Note: I drafted this post well over a month ago. I'm pasting as is and then updating on what's happened since then in another post. Both are follow ups to this post in September.

A couple years ago Would You Rather prompts were a part of my Do Now rotation. Students really enjoyed them, but they enjoyed them too much – thirty minutes would go by while every student begs for the chance to share their reason, their story, their opinion. I wanted to value all of their input but we had Algebra content to cover! So I dropped them from the rotation.

This summer I was watching my twitter feed fly by: black lives matters messages, political statements, claims that seem ridiculous mixed in with others back by data. And as always, people tweeting misuse of statistics in many scenarios. I wondered how to incorporate ideas of social justice into my classroom. I heard rave reviews of the math debate sessions at TMC. I decided to pose a weekly homework assignment where students would choose a side of a debate and defend their position using both math and their background knowledge.

These assignments are graded on the accuracy of their calculations and how many reasons they provide. The choice they make and the quality of reasons have no effect on their grade. All of these assignments are in the Standards of Mathematical Practice category of their grade. This seems appropriate because every week they:
1. Make sense of problems
2. Reason quantitatively
3. Construct viable arguments
4. Model with mathematics
6. Attend to precision

We went through a few iterations, but now each week we hand out a paper that starts with presenting the options. For example:
Incandescent light bulbs or compact fluorescent?
Hourly wage or yearly salary?

Then we ask for their initial opinion. They have thoughts already so it's important to ask - I want to know their gut instinct. If they claim they don’t have an opinion then this is how I hope to get them at least slightly invested – make a choice.

Next we provide plenty of space to do some calculations. This is math class, there’s some math to do. We’ve talked about what kind of math makes sense (if we want to compare two things they need to have something in common – find the price per month for each, or the price per year for each, whatever you prefer!) and we’ve talked about labeling the work so that I can understand it without them next to me to explain it. Many students don’t know where to start – when they come to me after school we talk about what they know, why it’s hard to compare the information they have and what comparison they want to make. Many students don’t know things like there are 52 weeks in a year. I don’t feel guilty about not providing that information though, that means they now get to add SMP 5: use appropriate tools strategically to the list of mathematical practices they are using! Ask google or Siri if you don’t know your basic conversion factors. Other students think they know where to start, and they do “How old is the shepherd?” style calculations – 5 years + $9.20. When I grade, those students get a note asking “What does this mean?” in the hopes that they will realize that their sum is meaningless in the context of this problem. I don’t have a consistent plan for having a discussion of calculations and reasons with the class after I grade them all, mostly because I don’t get them graded at a particular time each week. Though that’s a cyclical argument – if I had a set date I would get them graded earlier. So… I’m going to decide right now to hand back the previous week’s assignment on Thursday or Friday each week (alternating block schedule makes this tough) so that students have feedback on their previous work before the next one is due (every Monday or Tuesday).

The first week I shared sample computations.

Finally, we ask for a paragraph with three reasons why they are making their choice. One of the reasons is required to be mathematical (this one is cheaper *or* I choose this one even though the other one is cheaper) but the other two are not necessarily math. They have had a surprisingly hard time with that. I don’t provide any information on the other differences between the options so students need to know something (CFL’s are eco-friendly), ask someone (salaried jobs get benefits) or be creative (CFL’s are prettier). All of the quotes below are from my current students. The beauty of this is that while most students don't know most of these things, each student knows something and so I can take all of their information and put it together to create robust arguments for each claim. Students are encouraged to add to their calculations and paragraphs if they did not earn full credit on first submission. This should be an easy 100 for every student by the time we go over it but we haven't gotten them there yet...

Mathematical reasons Other Reasons The same information can be
used to argue both claims.

So far I’ve been happiest with the two prompts above. I also did one on IXL vs. Khan Academy since the school was thinking about buying IXL and this was a great opportunity to ask the students to make a choice that would impact their education. Another was about who “won” conferences. I had the least number of parents attend, but I also have the least number of students. There were ways to make the data argue for anyone which should be an interesting conversation to have. That would be a good segue into a more media based assignment. I’d like to present an excerpt from an article and have students discuss the interpretation of a statistic. But I’m not sure what I can use that will be accessible for my students with low reading skills and engaging. This is where I’m hoping you can help! What are some debate worthy ‘real world’ prompts that students would be able to tackle independently?