Monday, October 19, 2015

Expecting Turned Unexpected

I wrote my last post here on August 19, shortly after the first day of school. I was excited about learning all my students' names and looking forward to a great year. I had no idea that, just seven days later, life would change in so many unexpected ways.

On August 26, a routine doctor's appointment showed some significant concerns with my pregnancy. Instead of sleeping in my own bed that night, I was admitted to the hospital to deliver our baby four weeks early. Even though I had planned ahead and we had a great substitute teacher lined up, I had hoped to be a little more organized before beginning my maternity leave. The timing was unexpected.

Baby didn't tolerate labor very well, so at 8pm the following evening he came into the world via emergency c-section. After hearing our little boy cry, I heard someone say the words "cleft lip and palate". We had no idea. He always had a little hand covering his face during sonograms. 

Little Silas was having some trouble breathing, so the decision was made to transport him to a children's hospital in the big city three hours away. I got to see him for a few minutes before they took him away. There was no holding my newborn until the next day when, fueled by pain medicine and a lot of motivation, my husband and I made the journey to see him.

Baby's breathing stabilized quickly, but we were in the NICU for three and a half weeks as he learned to master the art of eating. We met lots of doctors and specialists, including the plastic surgeon who will later repair his lip and palate. Silas will have three surgeries during his first year of life . . . more when he gets older and as he grows. It is not a journey we would have chosen for our son, but he's a tough little guy. He's going to be okay.

What we did expect is how much we would love him. 

P.S. I don't suppose I will be blogging much this year, but I hope you will be patient with me. I plan to pop up in your reader again some day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Day One: ALL the Names (and High Fives!)

Learning the names of students has never been a strength of mine. I've been known to take a week (or two) to get them all right. This year I decided to make it a priority, so I challenged myself to learn all the names on day one.

Day one, 35 minute class periods:

1. Students get a high five and a copy of "Mrs. Gruen's Life in Numbers" as they walk in the room. I borrowed this idea from Heather Kohn, as recommended at Global Math Department.

2. A seating chart is projected via the document camera and students find their seats. The seating chart is key. I could not have done this without it.

3. I introduce myself, then call out names from the roster while students are working at matching numbers from the answer bank to ten facts about me. I make note of preferred nicknames and pronunciations and such.

4. I show a brief slide show to reveal the answers to the quiz. I share an adorable pic of me with my family last Halloween . . .

And one of my dog Sophie, in big trouble after snitching a few almost-ripe tomatoes from my daughter's tomato plant.

5. I ask them to write 3-5 number facts about themselves. Share with your group members. Ask each other questions like "Which four countries have you lived in?" or "What's it like to have six toes on one foot?". I collect the papers when they're done.

6. Noah's ark problem from Fawn. Also recommended by Heather via Global Math.

7. As I watch students work and listen to their conversations, I have a good ten minutes to silently study the seating chart while looking at their faces. I practice covering the chart and saying their names in my head. We didn't finish the Noah's ark problem today, but that's okay.

8. As students leave the room, I say goodbye to each one individually. Bye Tate, bye Robert, bye Kyanna, bye . . . I overhear someone say "Holy cow, she knows our names already!"

Day two, before students arrive:

9. I go through the stack of number facts. I try to picture each face as I read what they've shared.

And then the final test:

10. As students enter the room on day 2, they get a high five and a "Hello Tate, Hi Robert, Good morning Kyanna . . . ". I only got two names wrong on day 2, and I think that is pretty good.

I also realized that learning names quickly has added another dimension to my daily high-fives. Every student gets to hear me say their name, along with their high five, every day. I definitely feel more connected to my students than I normally would be this early in the year. And the look on their faces when I welcomed them by name on day two? Priceless.

This is going to be a great year!

Sunday, August 16, 2015


My long overdue TMC15 reflection. . .

First of all, I am determined to not re-invent my teaching/curriculum/procedures this year. I went to TMC looking for smaller nuggets of inspiration that would improve my classroom, sans any dramatically huge changes.

Here are a few things that spoke to me:

Desmos activities. I consider myself to be a pretty proficient Desmos user, but I learned that there is so much I do not know yet. Among the features I learned about is the Desmos activity builder. I have already written a bunch of worksheets with Desmos instructions for students to follow. On these days, I spend the class period running around looking at screens when students reach particular checkpoints. No more. Now I can put the same exact set of instructions into the activity builder, have students enter the activity via a code, and watch all the action from my computer screen. Nice. I feel inspired to convert my current activities, and to build more.

Taming the firehose of resources. I enjoyed Bree's session on planning units using the MTBoS. I realized that my problem is not so much the planning stage . . . it is saving the resources I've found so that I can access them later at the time that I actually would use them. When I read something interesting, I generally bookmark it in feedly. And then I never see or hear from it again. I decided that it is okay for me to be more discerning in what I choose to save. When something is worthy of saving, I need to put a little more effort into saving it so it can be found later. "It is okay to appreciate something you've read and not save it", Bree said. I've been thinking about this a lot, as I am guessing 3/4 (or more) of my bookmarks are blog posts that I simply enjoyed reading but don't directly apply to my classroom. I am going to focus on those things that I intend to implement later on, and do a better job saving them with searchable tags and such (Evernote, perhaps?).

High fives at the door. Glenn's "my favorite" has been popular for good reason. It is simple, but we have already discovered it is powerful. My colleagues and I decided to make it a department thing, and also roped in the two non-math teachers in our hallway. So the 200 hallway is officially the "high-five hallway" at our school. I am surprised by how something so small has already helped me feel more connected to my students, and how the classroom atmosphere gets an immediate boost. You just can't be too grumpy after a high-five.

Music transitions. Playing music snippets to speed up transitions is something I've wanted to do for a while, but I was not sure how to execute. Or maybe I just didn't take the time. I don't know. Anyway, I am pumped to scan Vaudrey's resources and implement some tunes for all those routines that suck more class time than they should.

Do what you love. My colleagues and I just want to have fun teaching math. We are thinking of finding activities that share a common theme to implement on the same day/week. Barbie day, for example, could involve Barbie bungee in one classroom, Barbie zip line in another, and Barbie _____ elsewhere . . . We don't have the details worked out, but we do know there will be costumes.

Regrets. I was lucky enough to travel to TMC with my entire math department (all four of us) for the second year in a row. I love what this experience does for us. We have fun together, and we get excited about the same things. We come home and we implement our plans as a group. I get how blessed I am to have a work environment like that. But I really missed out on connecting with the other attendees. There are so many people who I follow and admire and learn from on a regular basis . . . I feel sad that I didn't sit down and have a chat with many of them.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Coming Soon: The Year I Won't Change Everything

I wrapped up the 2014-2015 school year a few weeks ago. Since then I've been simply enjoying the time at home. This week I hope to work in my classroom a day or two, so I thought it was time to reflect and collect my thoughts a bit.

I am proud of the two major projects my colleagues and I accomplished this year:

1.  We implemented SBG. We still have some work to do . . . but the best part is that we know, better than ever, what our students do and do not know.

2. We used our standards as the starting point for deciding what to teach. We focused on making sure we had all the standards covered and worked on a cohesive skills list to follow students from 9th grade through trigonometry. It is not a finished product, but we made a ton of progress!

We set a few goals to accomplish as a group for next year:

*Continue refining skills lists for 9th-11th. Add 12th to the list.
*Adjust how SBG scores are converted to grades . . . we are concerned that a few students ended up with passing grades even though they had multiple skills still un-mastered.
*Stop giving points for things that don't directly reflect students' knowledge. (Looking at you, binder organization grade). Figure out how to encourage & support organization skills without this grade.
*Work on strategies to help students RETAIN what they've learned beyond the assessments.

In other news . . . an exciting family update as depicted by our five-year-old:

We're blaming our daughter, as she has ended almost every day for years by praying for a brother or a sister. Baby brother arrives in late September . . . and so I am hoping for a productive summer and crossing my fingers for a very capable substitute teacher to take care of things while I'm away in the fall.

So here's my (paired down) summer list:

1. Leave calculus and physics (mostly) alone.
2. All changes for my Algebra 2 classes should be smaller adjustments. No re-inventing of the wheel. Not this year.
3. Plan all my classes through the first semester. Is this realistic? Repeat #1 and #2 out loud.
4. Look for ways to incorporate review, but more in a spiral-y way vs. the "review this because its going to be on the test tomorrow" type.
5. Stay calm. Take some guilt-free naps. Enjoy my summer.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Solving Exponential Equations (No Logs)

This is my second year teaching a "not advanced" Algebra 2 class. One of my goals has been to avoid simplifying or watering down the curriculum, even though my students are lacking in pre-requisite skills.

Instead, I've been taking more time for almost everything.

I've learned that the extra time is often better spent on the front side of a new concept, rather than after the fact like "Oh no, they didn't understand that so let's just repeat it for a couple more days".

I try to start with what they know, then gently stair-step them into the new thing.

Case and point, our recent venture into solving exponential equations (without logs) like these:

On the first day, I equipped students with white boards and said we were going to work on some puzzles. (Don't you just love the word "puzzle"?). Try to write an expression that equals 8, using a base of 2 with an exponent.

Step 1: We did a whole bunch of those, starting with positive integer exponents and working up to the use of negative integers and even a few fraction exponents. Students needed some reminders here and there, but we kept practicing until they were answering them all with accuracy. Then . . .

Step 2: We continued with more, but now students needed to choose what base number to use. There were some great moments here to capitalize on, like when students tried to use a base of 9 to get 243 but realized it wouldn't work and had to use a 3 instead. Or, when two students each used a different base and both answers were correct. I made a huge deal about these when they happened. Next . . .

Step 3: I gave students TWO goal numbers. They must write an expression for each, using the same base number for both.

And now, without realizing it, they've really learned how to do the hardest part of solving the equations for tomorrow's lesson.

Step 4: (Same as step 3, really) To finish the class period, I grabbed a copy of the practice set I wanted them to do the next day and pulled sets of goal numbers directly off of it.

On day 2, students easily transitioned into solving these.

On day 3, extra practice with Add Em Up.

BONUS! From here I introduced logarithms, and found that students were completely prepared to answer the question "What exponent goes with this base number to make this value?" The extra day spent on the front side of solving exponential equations ended up having a double payoff.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Giving Immediate Feedback Without Breaking a Sweat

Our entire math department is transitioning towards SBG. Recently, we were having a conversation about scoring of assessments and giving feedback and such, and I thought about THIS. I remembered conversation about Frank's orange pen strategy a few years ago, and I can't imagine why I only just decided to give it a try.

For the setup, I wrote out a key for the assessment. Since students would be looking at this, I tried to include more detail than I would for my own personal key. I made copies and set up these little stations around the room. My pens were red, pink, orange, purple . . . any color I could find that wasn't green. Green is my signature color.

Students did their assessment-taking in the usual fashion and then, before turning it in, they made a stop at one of these stations to mark what was wrong and make corrections.

And Voila! That's it.

The good:

Any given day, when I take the time to write feedback on a student's paper, I have no idea if the student is actually reading that feedback and taking it to heart. I don't know if they understand what I wrote, either. When a student writes their own feedback, I can clearly see their level of understanding of their mistakes.

I used this in my lower-level Algebra 2 class first. These students who are not usually super interested in their assessment results had more buy-in than usual. A few of them immediately stopped by my desk to explain their mistakes to me . . . just because they wanted to share!

Another student left a perfect note to herself after making a classic mistake while squaring a binomial. She was able to find exactly what she had done wrong and identify what she needed to do differently next time! I am sure this note IN HER OWN HANDWRITING is way more meaningful than anything I could have written on her paper.

And, at the risk of sounding lazy, I am also going to mention how much faster I am able to finish grading a set of assessments! Of course I still look at each paper carefully, but in most cases the student feedback is adequate. I just determine the level of understanding and BAM! Done. No additional comments needed.

The not-so-good:

Not every student left stellar feedback to themselves. A few just put a slash through the problem number if their answer was wrong without identifying their mistakes. I sent a few of them back to write more. One of them gave me a heavy sigh. I can live with this, but I will continue to coach students regarding my expectations here. I also updated my instruction sheet. Much better.

I really love #3. I have found that, if a student can convince me they understand their mistakes, it can actually influence the level of mastery I select for that skill. The writing of feedback almost becomes part of the assessment itself. An unexpected result that I am happy with.

Other thoughts:

If I want students to assess and do feedback in a single class period, I have to make sure that my assessments are not too long.

One colleague is concerned about students early in the day sharing information with those who take the same assessment later in the day. I have four different preps, so I am never giving the same assessment more than twice in a day. And even if an answer were shared . . . a student can't demonstrate understanding by simply writing the correct answer. I just haven't felt that this is a problem in my classes.

The first time through I underestimated the number of stations I would need. To avoid students waiting very long for a station, I found I need about 1 station for every three students.