Friday, September 30, 2011

My Favorite Partner Practice

I am a fan of anything cooperative, as long as it is structured in such a way that everyone participates. I spent a lot of time last year seeking out new cooperative practice ideas and trying them out.

I am an even bigger fan of partner cooperation. There is something about a group of three or four that makes me feel like someone is probably getting lost in the interaction. When you are working with a partner, you are directly accountable to one other person. I even have my students seated as partners.

I learned my favorite partner practice from another teacher in my grad program a few years ago. I found out later that it is a Kagan cooperative learning structure called boss/secretary.

Student 1, Boss:  This student's job is to watch and tell. Student tells how to solve the problem, and describes each step with enough detail that the partner can get it written down. This student should be talking and watching, but not writing.

Student 2, Secretary:  This student's job is to listen and write. Student writes down the solution as the partner describes it. This student should be writing but not talking. The exception is if the partner gets stuck or makes a mistake. Then the student can coach and assist with the solving.

What I like about boss/secretary:  It can be done at any time at the drop of the hat. It can also last for any length of time. I will often stop in the middle of a lesson and check for understanding this way. I will just throw out two problems and tell the person sitting on the right (or wearing the most green, or the biggest feet, or the oldest . . .) to be solver of the first problem and then switch roles. I also just used it for a unit review that lasted a whole class period. We used white boards and I signed off on each section as it was completed.

What I don't like:  Students have to stick to their roles in order for it to be a meaningful interaction. I have seen students who are responsible for listening take charge of the problem, or students who are in charge of talking to take a passive role. It is helpful to have students switch roles with every problem.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I Need Adventure (also my trial run of Solve, Crumple, Toss)

Yesterday I tried another goodie from f(t) . . . Solve, Crumple, Toss. Just in case you've never read that post, make sure you read the part about how you should use "6-8 problems with somewhat lengthy solutions". I either skipped or disregarded that part of the description, and it was the downfall of the day.

My students are working on writing linear equations in standard form, given different types of information. I just printed up twelve problems, six per page. Students cut them apart, worked them out (one at a time) and brought them to me to check. If all was dandy, then they got to take a shot for points.  If not, I sent them on their way to keep trying and encouraged partners to check each other's wrong answers and help find the errors. I had no time to coach and help find errors myself, because I had a line of students waiting for me to check their answers. I expected them to finish all twelve problems and make twelve shots. Fine as long as I have a student shooting, like, every eleven seconds. Note to self: Fewer, more complex problems next time!!!

The student response ranged from a few who acted totally tortured because they had to get up out of their seat twelve times, all the way to enthusiastic participation by many. This was fun and productive, and there will definitely be a next time.

In related news, I realized how much more I enjoy my job when I am trying something new. I have been teaching the same classes in the same school for 6 years now, so it is super easy to just pull out what I did last year and do it again. I don't want to take that approach to teaching, so I am always looking for ways to improve on what I have already done. Still, I think my best lessons are the ones that I create from scratch with a fresh perspective.

So today I am just thinking about the payoff for extra time spent trying something new. Sometimes these things work, and sometimes they don't. Still, I am happiest when I am being adventurous.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Stopped Answering Questions

Not really . . . but I did stop using 10-15 minutes at the beginning of class to discuss and answer questions on the previous day's assignment.

Initially, it was an experiment. I felt like students weren't really invested in this time, and that most of them were falling into one of four categories:

1.  The procrastinators:  These students were using this time to finish the assignment.
2.  The ones who lacked perseverance:  These students would encounter a challenging problem and then stop working on it (or not even attempt it in the first place) because they could just "ask about it in class".
3.  The ones who were really engaged:  Most days, it felt like maybe 2 kids.
4.  The ones who were bored:  These students had the assignment finished and were ready to move on to  a new lesson.

So I stopped spending time on questions. (My students have answers, so they can check for correctness as they practice). And this is what happened:

1.  Most of the procrastinators found a time to finish the assignment before class.
2.  Many more students persevered through challenging problems because they didn't have the crutch of asking about it later.
3.  Many with legitimate questions would drop by before school to ask. Most of our students arrive 30 minutes before first bell, so this works well at our school.
4.  Most everyone started finishing the assignment outside of class.

These outcomes alone were enough for me to turn my experiment into a permanent routine, but there was another benefit that I wasn't expecting . . . I suddenly had an extra 10 - 15 minutes in every class period. What can you do with an extra 10 - 15 minutes?! Here's how I use the extra time:

I use a few bell work problems every day (I am testing out a new bell work strategy, more on that later) to review and check for understanding. If there are any major misconceptions, I can usually identify and address them during this time.

While teaching a new lesson, I have a lot more time for practice and checking for understanding. I still do a lot of talking, but I also do a lot of pausing while students try this or that and check with me (or a partner). I have time to work in several mini-formative checks, and address common misconceptions. The result is fewer issues on the practice/assignment, which in turn further reduces the need for the question/discussion time at the beginning of class the next day.

Sometimes I still wonder if I should bring back the question time, structured differently to eliminate the problems I was having. I haven't done this because I don't miss it. And neither do my students. I realized today that in 2 or 3 years, I haven't had a single student complain about why I don't answer questions at the beginning of class.