April 24, 2014

Foster Parenting, A Teachers Perspective

Had a student in foster care? Heard about parents abusing the system on the news? Generally curious about the process? Great! Continue reading. (There aren't any instructions if you answered no to all of those questions. What's that joke about there being two type of people? Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data and...)

I decided that I'm settled enough to finally do what I've been expecting/planning to do since my brother was born - become a parent. I bought a condo with extra space, cleaned it up to a welcoming state and started foster care class.  

Turns out foster care class is a lot like education classes. We learn about the repercussions of trauma vs. typical stages of development. I took psych 101, adolescent psych and educational psych in college, nothing new there. Not to mention I observed in a school for kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, and since then have worked in three different high needs high schools. Then we talked about behavior management. This is essentially classroom management, except you get to revoke cell phone privileges for 24 hours instead of 90 minutes. There hasn't been much new information for me coming from an education background, but it is different to consider what I could handle in my home, after a day of teaching, as opposed to in my classroom for short stints of time. Plus it's always fun to think back through all my students; the day when a kid who was selectively mute spoke to me for the first time was such a victory and one I had forgotten about. 

Just like at school where you have guidance counselors, administration and the school nurse to help out with your students, foster care takes the "it takes a village to raise a child" message seriously. Every foster family is assigned a social worker that stays with them through multiple placements. Each child has a social worker, an attorney, a therapist, a physician (ideally the one they have grown up with), an educational advocate (for kids with IEP's) and of course their birth family. I have a feeling the number of appointments I'm going to be driving to will be mind boggling, but I feel much better knowing there are so many people who are there for every kid. Are they overworked? I'm sure. But so are teachers and that doesn't stop us from caring and noticing and doing our jobs. The state has set in place quite a few deadlines (phone contact with family in first 24 hours, doctor visit in first week, team planning meeting in first month) so that none of these important steps get overlooked. These are things that as a teacher I had no idea were in place, I'm glad to know they are. 

Also news to me: frequently social services is already working with a family when they make the decision to take custody of the child(ren). I assumed if I filed a 51A they would take custody as soon as the allegations were confirmed. Of course they remove any child who is in danger immediately, but that's not the only way a child can end up in foster care and it isn't the only role of DCF. 

They are seriously desperate for foster parents across the country. Especially families who are willing to take in adolescents (at one point there weren't any in my town who would take teens, I'm not sure if that's still the case but it seems likely). Normally the process is apply, have a brief interview and home inspection (Do you have smoke detectors and a room that's not a closet? Great!), take the class and then start the home study (more in depth interview and home inspection). But because I'm willing to take teens my social worker is getting most of my home study done before the end of class. When I told her that I'm traveling all of July (PCMI and TMC!!) I expected her to be disappointed that I wouldn't be able to take a placement until August, but instead she replied, "Are you open to short term placements before then?"

While there is a shortage of homes for kids, the process is still thorough. Beyond the 30 hours of class I've had four hours of interviews so far and there are a few questions left that the social worker needs to ask after I've finished the remaining 3 weeks of class. Plus it took me a long time to complete my family profile (and I'm only a family of one!). I imagine the home inspection is different for someone looking to take in small children but even so two different social workers have toured my home. I've already been CORI-ed and will be fingerprinted in a couple weeks (a CORI is local while fingerprinting is national) and I needed four references (employer, doctor and two personal ones).

Fitting this entire experience into a single post is a bit unreasonable, so I hope you'll ask questions about the things I've skipped. I don't intend to turn this blog into a teaching/foster care blend, but any insight we can get to the experiences of our students helps make us better teachers, so I may share occasional experiences with the foster care system that inform my teaching. What would help inform your teaching?

April 1, 2014

Invitations for Interventions

I had a crowd of students after school today. So many, in fact, that some looked around the room and decided they would come back another day. I've decided there are two important ingredients to getting kids to stay after. First, they need to be invited. Second, they need to see that it matters. A third, bonus ingredient, is follow through.


I invite students to stay for what our school calls "dayback" in a variety of ways. The most basic is a calendar in my classroom that shows when I am available after school. It is near the door so hopefully students look at it on the way out and remember to come back at the end of the day.

Whenever a student asks if I'm staying after today I refer them to the calendar, but if it's at the end of the period I will also announce to the whole class which days I am available. It never hurts to hear an extra reminder.

Throughout the quarter I communicate to students what they need to do to be successful in class. A week or two before a report is sent home, I print a progress report for every student. At mid-quarter the list of assignments isn't overwhelming so I print the whole report. By the end of the quarter there are too many assignments for it to be helpful for most kids. My grade system has a feature where you can print just the category averages which helps kids get a sense of what they need to focus on (projects or tests since those are 80% of their grade combined) so near the end of the quarter I print those (then kids can ask me what they need to fix/hand in after school if they don't have a record of it).

At other points I invite particular students to stay after based on particular criteria. Today I gave this note to every kid who was completely missing something (either they were absent or never handed it in). Other times I use this note to tell students (sometimes all, sometimes below a cutoff) where they stand. This quarter the 10th grade team talked about starting mandatory dayback for kids who are failing. I think I'm the only one who followed through, but I decided to start with kids who had a failing average for the year (the goal is to start this much earlier next year so kids will keep up rather than need to catch up) and they would 'graduate' from staying after weekly when their average is over a 65%. Ideally by then they would see that staying after helps them and continue! Once kids received their initial notification I asked them every Monday which day they would stay as a reminder that they needed to continue staying weekly until I said otherwise.

Staying After Matters:

Once you get a kid to show up after school, you need to convince them it's worth their while or they won't come back again. Frequently you need to convince them of this before they even show up. But after sitting down with me to work on something and finally understanding for the first time, they're convinced. The jump in their grade is an added bonus. My grading system allows students to retake any quiz or test and the new grade replaces the old one. They can also correct any project to get full credit. When I explain this to a kid (sometimes for the 50th time in a class) they are somewhat skeptical that doing one assignment will make a big difference. These are often the same kids who decided to go back and make up homework assignments - homework is 10% of the grade and they can only earn half credit for late homework because we go over it. Is is worth doing? Yes. Not because it will impact your grade, but because it will prepare you to retake the quiz and test on that topic. Weighted averages appear to be beyond even my advanced students. Something about attention to detail is missing for many of them.

To keep track of what they need to do, but more importantly to have a visual reminder of what they have accomplished, I have kids on mandatory dayback fill out a form. This form has been awesome for streamlining. When a kid first shows up we make a list of everything they can correct/retake/do (for Fundamentals of Geometry kids there's a stamp chart they can look at, for PreCalc kids they are supposed to track their own assignments but I'll cross reference with the online gradebook). Then each time they show up they work on the next item on the list and I don't need to tell them what to do. The forms stay in a folder on my desk so kids can grab them when they come, but also so that I can see who has been in each week (all forms are on the left on Monday, when a kid stays after they return the form on the right).

Follow Through:

If a student says they will stay after and then don't, I try my best to ask them what happened the next class. It's hard to do though. That's why I started a spreadsheet for the kids with mandatory dayback. At the end of the week (once kids have had a chance to show up on Friday) I go through the folder and mark who stayed this week. I email the deans a list of the kids who didn't show up (which is why they're divided by grade, we have a dean for grade 9, grade 10 and grade 11/12). Then if the deans see the kids during the week they reinforce the importance of coming to see me.

(the blanks are kids who were not notified yet, either because they are chronically absent or they didn't fall below the cutoff until a later week)

I wish students realized from the start that struggling isn't a sign of failure, but a sign of needing extra support. I wish that they knew staying after school is something good students do, not students who are 'in trouble.' But most students don't come to me knowing these things. I don't chase kids and I know I won't remember to talk to students in the middle of class, but I can hand a kid a note that says "I want to see you, I care about you, we can work together and you will improve." 

March 14, 2014

Confronting the Insanity

The testing pressure in my district is real. The school committee met this week to talk about handing one of our elementary schools over to a private company. The skill deficits my students have are also real. Every time we talk about parallel or perpendicular lines we have to discuss how to find slope and what slopes would show the lines are parallel/perpendicular. When we are trying to find the missing angle of a polygon they struggle both to set up and to solve equations. So, the limited Algebra practice that I naturally incorporate in Geometry class isn't sufficient. I can't send them into an Algebra heavy state test in May like this, and I can't send them into Algebra 2 like this. I'm not going to quit teaching Geometry to teach Algebra, and I'm sick of forcing Algebra into Geometry (today we were identifying quadrilaterals given the four vertices, then writing the equation of the line containing one side... because they need practice writing equations of lines).

So my co-teacher and I decided today that we will set aside some time to do Algebra, maybe at the beginning of each class (the glory of 90 minute blocks is we can do this and still have a rich Geometry lesson). In our conversation we thought a good first task would be to have kids practice matching equations to graphs, and then we can work up to writing equations and graphing. But then my last block class had kids in such different places that some kids will be ready to move on from matching after day one while others will need a lot more practice. I think this has to be individualized, each kid could get a chart listing all the skills, quiz on a topic (say 5 questions on a very specific skill) and they either test out of that skill or get assigned related practice problems. If each kid gets an individualized assignment do these have to come in a particular order or can kids choose? Which skills have prerequisites? Maybe I can have kids write practice problems after they master a skill so I'm not making a million?

I hate being so skill/test focused so I'm also hoping to mix in Fawn's awesome visual patterns and estimation problems. Possible plan: each week every student must complete 2 skill assessments, a pattern and an estimation problem (then I can skip estimation on my skill list!). Patterns and estimation should be written up with a partner, skill assessments must be completed individually (but feel free to discuss practice problems with a partner). If I plan 60 minute lessons then students can work on this at the end of class (plus about half the students - the ones with a math learning disability - have a second block with my co-teacher, she has been trying to set up similar things so this can carry through to the other class).

This afternoon I set out to see what skills are important according to the state test. And came up with a list (below) that I can work with. I'm really hoping part of this matches your curriculum, that you do SBG and you have assessments and skill practice sheets that you can share with me. Please??

Simplify algebraic expression (order of operations, exponent rules, factor/distribute)

Solving equations (rate, linear, one quadratic-multiple choice)
Solving system of linear equations, absolute value inequality

Writing linear equation, absolute value inequality
Writing and graphing inequalities (one variable)

Number Sense
Estimate percent, square root, with data (total, average, difference)
Scientific Notation

Angles of triangles, parallel lines with transversal, parallelogram
Similar and congruent triangles
Pythagorean Theorem
Transformations on coordinate plane

Mean, Median, Mode, Range
Box and Whisker Plot, Scatter plot, Line Plot, Circle Graph

Area, Surface Area, Volume

I have a better sense of what I'm hoping to achieve after writing this post, but I still don't know how best to organize this all. It's overwhelming because it seems like an entire Algebra class running on top of my Geometry course. But I'm already overwhelmed so I'd rather be overwhelmed with a purpose and a plan than continue throwing up my hands in despair. Advice greatly appreciated!

March 8, 2014

PreCalc Review Day

March 4th, C Block Honors PreCalculus

The bell rings at 11:03, the projected instructions tell students to take out their homework (a concept map, inspired by Elizabeth's post) and compare with their neighbors. Which ideas are the same? Which are different? Did you skip those things on purpose or because you decided they weren't important enough to include? Individual students share with me their struggles and successes as I take attendance. A student returns quizzes from last class, most of them remember to record their grades in their chart and students who received perfect scores tape their stars to the "Perfect Score, First Try!" wall. A student tells me she couldn't find the example concept map online; I briefly panicked it hadn't uploaded, then we figured out she didn't realize the files were multi-page and she had to scroll to get to the example. I asked if anyone wanted to share something about their concept map but no one really did. One student said that he thought it was interesting, he had made webs and maps in science and english class before, but never in math. Everyone hands in their concept map in the class inbox.

At 11:12 we transition to making observations about the problems they solved last class. Usually we do work and discuss in the same day but last class was short? Maybe? Somehow we are discussing things today but luckily these are my Honors PreCalc kids, they have organized binders and can find the work quickly. I ask them to notice and wonder about solving polynomials of higher degree. A student wants to tell me that the degree of the polynomial tells you how many roots there are, but she says "the exponent is how many solutions there are" For once, I remember to write down exactly what a student says! I then write down the example x^4+x^3+2 and ask her how many solutions. She realizes it's the highest exponent so we add that word in. I tell her that what she said is perfectly clear, and then ask the class if they remember the word for 'the highest exponent' and get a lot of blank stares (could've sworn I just used this term...) but eventually someone clicks in and says "Degree!" I ask them to be even more specific - what kinds of solutions did they get when solving degree 4 polynomials? (I set it up last class so they had one example with 2 real and 2 imaginary, another example with 4 imaginary.) And then push them - is it possible to get one imaginary? Why not? What else did you notice? Someone recognizes that all the imaginary solutions are plus or minus, so I mention the word conjugate and then ask why that matters? We make up an example and I have them multiply out (x-i)(x+i) to see that the resulting polynomial won't have any imaginary coefficients. Several students are totally convinced that there have to be an even number of imaginary solutions, but I'm not so sure about the rest of the class, so I ask if they want to do another example. One student nods so we discuss the number and type of possible roots of degree three polynomials. When I asked if it could have four imaginary roots a couple students are so caught up in the fact that imaginary roots have to be even they say yes. And then smile at their mistake when someone points out that four is greater than three.

11:24 We transition to independent review. I have sample problems available for each of the topics that will be on the test next week and emphasize that even if students are confident in solving polynomials since we just finished that topic they should read through the problems because they ask for the answer in different forms (real solutions vs. all solutions vs. factored). A student asks if they can retake a quiz and I tell the whole class that now is a great time to do any make up work or retakes they need to do, since any of those tasks results in them practicing the topics that will be on the test. Things get busy as half the class wants me to answer a question about their quiz or the graded assignment from last week. I run around in circles for a while until most people are working on something, then I walk in circles answering questions. Progress reports go out this week but I'm behind in grading so I flip through the assignments in the inbox to make sure that everyone who has resubmitted the graded assignment did so correctly. I spot a few with issues and instruct those students how to complete that section.

12:05 All is quiet. Everyone is working. I can breathe for a moment, but only one, someone else has a question.

12:15 Most students haven't done the review problems on operations with complex numbers. I really want them to realize that |a|*|b|=|a*b|, which isn't something we discussed in class. I get everyone's attention and tell them to do those problems right now if they haven't yet, then hurry up and notice something. The student who told me at the beginning of class he hadn't done a concept map in math before shared that he didn't feel like it was useful last night, but today as he did all the review problems he felt that he understood everything much better. (YAY!!) I told him I was glad to hear that and we chatted about how your brain works off of connections; the more you access a memory the better you remember it, so the more connections you have to an idea the easier it is to access.

12:20 I am about to get everyone's attention to talk about the complex number pattern, but notice one of my students who doesn't participate much is tutoring her partner. I wait.

12:23 Attention everyone! Please do this complex number problem that I am writing on the board. A student guesses that the pattern is |a|*|b|=|a*b| and I say yes! I project the journal questions (What did you notice or wonder? How should you study for the test?) and the homework (study, here are the relevant sections in the book). A student goes up to the review problems that she hasn't gotten to and lines them up so she can take a photo with her phone. Smart use of technology!

12:28 The bell rings. I experience immediate regret for telling students the pattern after one of them guessed rather than making sure everyone did out the work to see why. That would have been an excellent homework problem. Hindsight...

Note: This post is for Day in the Life, Single Class Edition. Read all the DITLife posts and submit your own!

March 2, 2014

DITLife, Single Class Edition

Yesterday Lisa wrote a post about varying the types of instruction she uses in her math classes and put out a call for examples. This sounded like a perfect time to bring back Day in the Life of an Educator. But this time, instead of sharing your entire day, share a single class period in detail. I'm always curious to hear what happens in other classrooms, but more than that, I'm curious why people make the decisions they do. Why did you make that a whole class activity? How do you get students to work in groups? (I've yet to tackle this goal, let alone accomplish it.) Did students react as you expected? What decisions did you consider ahead of time and what did you have to decide on the fly? ... So many questions!

If you're interested in answering some of those questions, write a blog post about one class period this week. Then, submit your post and tweet it using #DITLife. I will put all of the posts submitted via form onto the tumblr (hence the need for a description and tags).