December 6, 2013

Classroom Environments

I teach three sections of fundamentals of geometry. It should be easy, prep once, teach three times, repeat. But you know it never works out like that. All three classes are substantially different.

The first is small, 9 students, all with more substantial learning disabilities. Most of them were in the same math class last year but even though they know each other, they don't work together. My desks are arranged in pairs, but only two students sit together, and they never talk to each other. When we do stations, the problems rotate rather than the students and we don't bother putting the desks into groups. They all sit quietly and are pleasant to work with. A couple are resistant to working, but in non disruptive ways. When my co-teacher and I tell the students to use their resources, we mean their binders not their neighbors. We frequently get to sit with a student or alternate between two rather than running around the room. These students struggle with math, so even with three adults (one student has a medical para) they don't get through as much math as the other groups, but they are generally aware that math is hard for them. They recognize it takes extra effort, but that we won't ask anything impossible of them. I wait for volunteers during class discussion or ask every student to answer (some have issues focusing and repetition is necessary for them to commit some definitions to memory). 

The next class is down to 14 students (we lost several and gained one as the year progressed) but I don't think I've had a single class with every student present; we usually start class with only a handful. Many of them are beyond their second year of high school. They either repeated algebra last year or are repeating geometry this year. There are clashing personalities and a whole lot of obstinant defiance. It's the end of the day and they're done. On some days a couple decide to be role models and get groups working together, but they can just as easily turn the class against me. The ones who are consistently ready to learn at the beginning of class are easily frustrated and shut down regularly. This group can't handle stations, I tried them in a variety of ways and determined this crew needs much more structure. This class revolves around timers, a lot more whole class work and brain pop. A student requested it once and so I've used every relevant video they have (can you tell I'm a bit desperate?). Usually a student is excited to push the button during the quiz and most of the class will give some thought to the questions when cold called. They do a few practice problems at a time and then we switch to get the practice in without running the risk of anyone getting sidetracked. They make use of the white boards. Students stand, sit on desks, wander the room, jump between groups and generally look like chaos, but somehow we always end up ahead of the other classes. These students don't struggle with math, they struggle with school. 

The third class is 21 students. One third have a math disability, one third are English language learners and the remaining third have a variety of emotional issues. This group is also at the end of the day (we have an alternating day schedule) and they, too, are worn out by the time they arrive. They're boisterous but good natured. They get back to work when told, but then are giggling about something else a few minutes later. When they work in stations they happily talk to each other, sometimes even about math. When we tell this group to use their resources we mean - don't sit there not doing anything waiting for a teacher when your neighbor knows how to help you! They move around the room but mostly with purpose, they use the tools available, many like to solve problems on their desk and getting their paper stamped for completing a station is a good reward. They monitor each other. It's a needy class that has my co-teacher and I on the move the entire 90 minutes but we are slowly training them to be independent learners. A variety of students participate in class discussions and we leave the others alone since we checked in with them during the activity. 

While I prep one lesson for all three classes, the implementation is substantially different. One class does problems from the board while the others get printed problems cut up into individual assignments. They all do the activities, but some on paper, others on the big white boards and still others on the dry erase desks. Some classes discuss, others report out answers having already discussed nearly every question with us individually. In all cases each student gets practice solving problems and everyone both uses and hears geometry vocabulary. But each class is a different environment and I strive to maximize the potential of each unique grouping. It's exhausting, but it's more exhausting to battle with a class to fit some ideal they aren't ready for!


  1. Loved this, Tina. Sometimes reading about how other teachers deal with the same struggles I face is exactly what I need. Solidarity. :) Thanks for sharing.

  2. What I also find when I have multiple sections is that I use some different examples or scenarios when discussing ideas with the students. I do this, in part, to keep myself fresh. This also happens due to different questions being raised by the kiddos. I think we're doing a disservice if multiple sections have the same experience.

  3. Thanks Rebecka. We need One Good Thing, but we also need to hear some of the bad things to remember that we're all only human and doing the best we can to solve some very challenging problems!

    I also find certain wordings that spark a memory so by the last class I've fine tuned my explanations.

    I worry that I'm doing one class a disservice by not providing them the experience of working together, so I'm glad that you think variety is better!

  4. I feel like I go through the exact same thing most days when I teach my 3 sections of lower level Algebra II Trig class. I feel like my 3rd class gets my best explanations but they are the rowdiest by far so I sometimes get through everything that I did with the other two. Teaching is so bizarre sometimes and I would never have thought that having 3 of the same prep requires more work then just prepping once and hoping it sticks for all 3. So glad you posted this...makes me feel ready for tomorrow!

  5. That second group, the one you said struggles with school, not math, sounds like my favorite kind of class.

    Thanks for describing a challenge that all teachers of multiple sections of the same course can identify with. Not only do I identify, I have proof! I was just reading my end of semester feedback from students and noticed my first class complained I am disorganized more than my last class -- proving I need multiple sections to get my s#!t together. Thinking about your multiple approaches across sections makes me think I could do the same with mine.