Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Stations Review and Practice

I saw this method of review for the first time at an NCTM conference a few years back.  The presenter was Heather Hart.  Since then, I have seen several different versions.  Here's how it works for me:

Print up some cards with 2-3 problems each.  Make two copies -- one to leave blank and one to write out the solutions.

Write out the solution to each problem, and attach the solutions to one set of problems to the back of the next consecutive card.  (See below the solutions to #13 and #14 are on the back of the #15 and #16 card).  I like to have the answers on the next card, so students can't just flip over the card to see the answer right away.

Then you are ready to roll.  Just set up your stations around the room.  Start with 2-3 students at each station to work out their first set of problems.  Set the timer for 3-5 minutes (or whatever seems appropriate).  When time is up, students rotate to the next station where they check/correct what they just did and then work out the next set of problems.

After the first time using this activity, my students asked me if they could just stay in their seats and pass the cards from table to table instead of getting up and moving around.  I was surprised, but it was fine by me.  If I am being honest, I kind of prefer students sitting in their seats.

Why I like stations:  It takes some time to create the cards, but they can be laminated and re-used a ton of times.  The actual execution of this lesson could not be easier.  I just pass out the cards and set my timer, sip some diet pepsi, and holler "rotate".  I also think this would be a great lesson to leave for a sub, since it doesn't require any mathematical knowledge to pass out cards, set a timer, and yell "rotate".  So most likely it wouldn't get messed up.

Why I don't:  You have to have the timing just right.  If students finish their problems and then have to wait more than 30 seconds to move to the next station, then they have time for shenanigans.  I started pairing this activity with a page of bonus problems that they can work on if they have to wait at any time during the activity.  Also, after awhile, this activity becomes mundane.  Students start to look like little robots:  Work problem.  Pass card.  Check answer.  Repeat.  A few of them will try to beat the system and just wait for the solution card to show up instead of trying to work out the problems on their own.  You will want to be careful not to over-use this one, but I guess that is true for a lot of activities.  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Never Say Its Easy

I used to try to alleviate my students’ stress level by telling them that what they were about to learn would be easy.  I had good intentions . . . I just wanted them to relax a little and trust me.  It was a bad idea.

This played out for real in my most recent unit on radicals.  My Algebra II kids always struggle with this.  Square roots aren’t so bad, but when you throw in cubed roots and beyond plus rationalizing the denominator and solving radical equations . . . well, they struggle.  So, this time around I told them how hard it was going to be.  Brace yourselves, I told them.  You are going to have to work harder than you have ever worked to figure this stuff out. 

They killed it.  Highest scores EVER.

So then I realized that telling them it is easy sets up a lose/lose situation for students.  One of two things is going to happen:

1.     They’re successful, but it is no big deal.  Who is proud of being successful with something that is supposed to be easy?
2.     They’re not successful, and it is depressing.  Not only were you unsuccessful, you were unsuccessful with something that your teacher says should have been a piece of cake.

Telling them it is hard sets up more of a win/break even situation:

1.     They’re successful, and they can be proud of it.  They just accomplished the impossible!
2.     They’re not successful.  But after all, it was hard.

I am going to try to stop saying anything is easy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

5 More Days of Trailer School

I cannot blog about teaching math for another minute without mentioning that the single most exciting event in my entire career is less than a month away.

Before I tell you what that is, let me take you back 2 1/2 years . . . The small midwestern town where I teach was struck by a tornado.  The high school, middle school, and elementary school, along with many homes and businesses, were destroyed.  It was devastating.  I don't live in town, but I could tell you what it was like to meet security on the edge of town and convince them that I desperately needed to check the status of my classroom.  I will never forget the first glimpse of my school -- partially standing and partially in rubble.  The staff worked together to salvage whatever we could.  Thankfully, my files and teaching supplies were locked in a cabinet that was unharmed.  Never mind that I had to dodge broken glass and rubble to get to them.  Many other items were saved as well.

Items that we salvaged were stored for the summer while temporary facilities were put in place.  My trailer classroom arrived just days before the first day of school.  Miraculously, we started school on time, with modular classrooms dotting the blocks surrounding the demolished school.  Our students braved rain, wind, snow, cold, and heat as they walked the blocks from class to class, and stayed amazingly positive through it all.  We missed the things we used to take for granted -- like hallways, lockers, a teacher's workroom, proximity to our colleagues.  But we survived!

And now, through the window of my trailer classroom, I can see a beautiful new school.  Almost finished.  We move in on January 5th.  I am so excited to walk down a hallway, to eat lunch in a cafeteria, and to have assemblies in an auditorium, thinking about it almost brings tears to my eyes.

Time to finish packing!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Green Stars

First of all, I ditched my red pen a long time ago.  I read somewhere that red pen causes extra anxiety in students, but mostly I gave it up because I love the color green.  Green is my signature color.  So I do all of my grading in green felt tip pen.

When I am teaching my students something that I know they are going to have a hard time with, I tell them to do problem #whatever and then raise their hand to get a green star from me.  This gives me a chance to check in with each student individually and see if they are on track.  It also gives me a chance to help them correct any errors that they are making.  It is simple, but it works amazingly well.

What is surprising to me about this little trick is that students really seem to care about getting a green star!  Class will be over, and I will have a few stragglers lined up to get their green stars before they leave the room.  On the occasion when I check someone's paper but forget the green star, they will certainly remind me.  Sure, I have a few who don't understand and they don't want me to know that they don't know what they are doing.  They will try to get by without checking in with me, but I know who they are and I make a point to check in with them. 

My physics class is smaller and when I do this with them I usually have 3-5 problems that I want to check.  So, they get a green star for the first one, a smiley face for the second one, etc.  Then for the last problem I let them pick what they want.  The requests have included a heart, a penguin, a flying squirrel, and beyond.  Sometimes they tear off my little pictures and tuck them in their notebooks.  So it is just a fun way for me to give each student some individual attention.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Here's my blog . . .

I am a high school math teacher from a rural community in the Midwest.  My school is fairly small, so I am the only teacher of Algebra II, Calculus, and Physics.  Just a few years ago, we started teaching a course called “math strategies”.  It was meant to help our struggling students prepare for state assessments.  I teach one section and a colleague of mine teaches the other.  It was the first time in my ten-year career that I taught the same class as another teacher in my building!  We went right to work collaborating and sharing ideas.  I’d create one activity and she’d create another.  It was a beautiful world of sharing that I hadn’t experienced anywhere else, until recently.

I have discovered the world of blogs written by other math teachers.  I don’t know what took me so long, as I consider myself to be fairly savvy when it comes to technology.  But this new world has been rich with ideas and inspiration!  So I decided to give it a try.  I don’t know how often I will update, or even if I will have anything to share that the blogging world hasn’t heard before.  But I intend to share some lessons that I really like, and maybe some of my struggles and victories along the way.