Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My First Edcamp

This past Saturday I attended my first edcamp. Our system's technology coordinator was one of the organizers. He tried to explain to us what this "unconference" would look like, but I think it might be impossible to really understand an edcamp until you've experienced one for yourself.

In the main meeting room a whiteboard was partitioned into rooms/time slots. Post-it notes were on a table in front of the whiteboard. If you had something you wanted to share or a problem you wanted to discuss, you wrote it on a post-it note and picked a room/time.

The Session Board

Topics included project-based learning, using Twitter in the classroom, Google Classroom, Kahoot!, and many others. Two teachers from my school introduced some of us to Adobe Voice. As sessions would meet and it became clear attendees wanted or needed more discussion about something else, another session would form. It was a neat process to watch.

Friends and colleagues sharing Adobe Voice

Michael had suggested I pick a slot for discussing the flipped classroom, so I did.  He assured me I needed no prepared presentation. He advised me to just share how I had flipped my classroom and how it was working for me.  I had no idea what to expect, but a room-full of people were interested in talking about the flipped classroom. After I shared "my story," teachers asked questions or shared their own experiences. We were having a great time and had to be told that the next session was waiting to enter the room. :)

Drawing for door prizes (I sure did want that Apple TV!)

Edcamp was a great PD experience.  It was FAST. It was FUN (even if I didn't win a door prize). There was a lot of information given and lots of things I want to explore deeper, but I really didn't find it overwhelming. My brain was not hurting like it sometimes has after a day of teacher-learning.

Most of all, the day was ENERGIZING. It was great to be with teachers who wanted to be there, talking about issues they wanted to talk about. I got to see former students now changing the lives of their own students. I got to meet pre-service teachers wanting to learn everything they can from current teachers. I made new connections (yea, Twitter!). Being able to share how and why I flipped my classroom reignited my passion for it.

I was reminded of how much we teachers need each other to be the best teachers we can be.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Retakes and Redos

Flipping my algebra classes has been a huge part of my transformation as a teacher this year. But there's been a second change I've made that has been transformational in its own right: retakes and redos.

I've attempted various methods of redos/retakes throughout my teaching career. I've never been extremely happy with any of them. They seemed to be lots of work for me with little benefit or improvement for the kids. Many times student made significantly worse on their second attempt at a test.

Last year I started to seriously consider some sort of retake policy...again. Students (and parents) were frequently interested in do-overs, but I wanted to make the effort required worth my and my students' time.

Then this past summer I discovered (via Twitter) Rick Wormeli. I read some of his books and watched some of his YouTube videos. He is a huge proponent of retakes and redos. He asks if all the "major" tests - ACT, bar exam, driver's license, others - are allowed to be taken as many times as desired, why shouldn't a test in school? He says any student - even the one who makes a 95 and wants a 100 - should be able to retake a test. He says students should be able to earn full credit on a retake - just as on all of those "major" tests. He also suggests ANY assignment can be redone.

His arguments made sense to me, so I decided to implement a wide-reaching retake and redo policy. I patterned my policy after the policy he used when he was in the classroom.

Daily grades can be corrected for full credit.

Tests can be retaken for full credit, after some preparation. A "Request to Retest" must be filled out and signed by the student and parent.  The student reflects on why they made the score they did the first time and what they are doing to improve the score.

Three activities must be done to prepare for the retake. Correcting the first test is always one; if there was a practice test or review, it must be completed again. Students can choose the third activity - re-watching videos, practice worksheets, IXL practice, etc. - as long as they provide proof.

Retakes and redos must be completed within a week of the return of the original assignment. Tests must be taken during the student's PE class. Retakes and redos can't be done the last week of the grading period to allow me to meet my deadlines for having grades finalized.

Yes, it has been extra work. I'm making 2 tests for every unit (3 if you count the practice test); the retake is similar to the original test. I'm writing passes for students to miss PE and juggling students coming to me to take a test while I'm getting a class started for the day. I'm finding extra practice for kids to do on concepts they struggled with the first time. I'm grading extra daily assignments and extra tests.

But it's working.

Only 1 student hasn't raised his/her score on each of the the last couple of retake rounds (30 students retook the last test!). And, each time, that student has either made the same score or scored only a few points lower on the retake.

Even more exciting to me than the improved scores is the evidence of learning. Real learning. Students are understanding concepts they will need as we progress through the course. Misconceptions are cleared up, and students who are careless pay greater attention to detail.

Some students choose not to redo any assignment or retake any test, deciding it's "too much work for a few points." The only abuse of the policy I've detected is some girls who retake tests to get out of "weight room days" in PE, even if they did very well on the original test. For a few students, I've had to stress the importance of following the policy; if you don't, you won't be allowed to retake your test.

Overall, though, I'm very pleased.

Today a student summed it up very well.  She said, "I'm glad you do the redos and retakes because it makes you really learn the material." Me: "That's the point." Her (my paraphrase): "Usually I just rush through the material trying to get it good enough to get the grade. Now I get to go back and really learn it."

That's a win in my book!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Finding Joy in the Struggle

The last three weeks have been tough.

I had a wonderful Fall Break.  Time with my family, time in my favorite place on Earth (The Smoky Mountains), time to rest and recharge. The mental break was needed and enjoyed, and I was ready to go back to school and charge full-steam ahead all the way to Christmas.

I knew by looking at the calendar that the end of October all the way into the first part of December would be busy.  But I was rested; I was ready!

I was wrong.

By the end of the second week I was feeling like I had been knocked on my keister.

It was a perfect storm.  Many different circumstances came together to make these past 3 weeks the most challenging of the school year so far.

The busy schedule.  Lots of afternoon and evening activities. Two Saturdays in a row of math tournaments (all day affairs including bus travel). Sunday afternoons at school to do/finish work I was unable to finish during the week.

A topsy-turvy school schedule. Our high school volleyball girls made it to the state playoffs (Go, Knights!). But it meant I had to adjust my plans for days students would be absent to attend the games. Flipped lessons make it possible for students to not miss instruction, but middle school students who know they are going to be allowed to be absent aren't always the most focused on what is going on in the classroom while they are gone.

Personal sickness.  A sinus infection one week, a stomach virus the next. I hate not feeling my best. It is hard to give what I need to give in the classroom when it's not all there to give.

Academic challenges. Beginning with The Too-Long Video, my algebra students entered a period of experiencing difficulty with material that was new and more challenging than what they have seen before. Student absences contributed to the feeling of lostness. There was a flipped lesson (direct variation) I was really unhappy with (no connections for the students or a sense of why it mattered). There was a flipped lesson (function notation) that I know blows students' minds, and the practice I provided didn't do a good job of clarifying the material.  There was a quiz (after the topsy-turvy days) on slope and graphing in slope-intercept form on which many students did not do well.

Every year, every group hits "the wall." The time they realize this is not going to be "math as usual" and they have to decide what they need to do to be successful. And I have to decide how to provide the necessary support to help them be successful.

I know to expect this wall. I knew the weeks following Fall Break would be challenging. But I had no idea how challenging, somehow the wall still took me off guard, and I found myself despairing. Doubting myself. Wishing for the educational bliss of the first nine weeks.

In a conversation with my principal earlier in the school year, I mentioned I felt like a baseball player who was seeing the ball clearly. Lots of hits, a couple of them out of the park, and only a few strikeouts.

But these past three weeks saw me not being able to get the bat on the ball to save my life. I was still swinging, but every pitch was making me look bad. And I began to reel.

This past week - working around the stomach virus - I tried to take steps to get my algebra students back on the right track. We had a discussion about not being able to "wing it" anymore and taking responsibility for our learning. I made warm-ups for the week to review/reteach concepts students were having difficulty with. I chose focused practice activities for students to become more comfortable with material.

And by Thursday I was seeing progress. I was able to work with students one-on-one. I was able to answer lots and lots of questions. Light bulbs were coming on where there had previously been darkness.

The retake/redo policy gave students hope. They could redo assignments they had misunderstood. They could do more practice and preparation (that maybe had not been done the first time) and retake that quiz.

After the big test on linear equations on Friday, many said "That was easy!" The material was NOT easy; they were prepared!

Things are beginning to look better.  I am feeling better physically and mentally. My students' confidence is higher, and so is mine.

So...what can I learn from these past three weeks?

I talk a lot about wanting my students to find joy in the struggle. I want them to know that when they struggle they can grow. I learned about "Growth Mindset" this past summer and have been trying to change my students' self-talk to reflect a growth mindset. My bulletin boards are covered in growth mindset statements!

I realized toward the end of the week I was not applying these statements to myself. That I was whining about the struggle. That I was displaying a fixed mindset.

There WILL be challenging days, weeks, months...even years. But just because I encounter challenging periods, it does not mean I am a failure. It does not mean everything I've been trying is not working and has been a waste of time. It just means I need to find what I can learn from the difficulties. See the areas that need improvement and work on them.

Find joy in the struggle because when I struggle I can grow.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Too-Long Video

The weeks since Fall Break have been incredibly busy, and I haven't had time to blog! I try to record topics as blog titles as I think of them so I'll remember what I want to reflect on when I actually have a few minutes to reflect.

It happened.  I made a video that was too long.

When we returned from Fall Break, after taking the ACT Explore, we began our lessons on slope. Slope is completely new to these students, so I had a lot of "back story" to give.  I talked a LOT in the video. I taught how to find slope from a graph and using the slope formula. Our book doesn't really develop finding slope from a graph, but kids need to understand it when graphing lines in slope-intercept form, so I thought it important to spend some time on it.

There were only 3 Smart slides, but the video was over 20 minutes long.  Like right at 22 minutes. Most videos are between 12-15 minutes long.

I warned the kids ahead of time.  There were groans. "She said we would never have videos over 15 minutes long!" Well, I never said "Never," but that was my intention.

It was material I would have covered in one class period, so I figured the extra 5 (ok...7) minutes would be fine.

I was wrong.

The kids were frustrated with the length of the video.  They seemed confused by the material. They struggled with the practice in class the next day.

While many things have contributed to the challenging nature of the last 3 weeks (more on that in a blog post to come), the too-long video was the beginning of a shaky foray into graphing linear equations.

So...a definite revision of this video is in order.  It will be 2 videos next year: one on an introduction to slope and finding slope from a graph, and a second one on the slope formula.

In my mind, neither one of these things should really take an entire day for my 8th grade Algebra 1 students. I had 2 days of applications of slope planned.  Should slope really take 4 days? Isn't that too long? This year's experience should convince me such is not the case. I've already taken more time this year with our introduction to linear equations based on what I decided was an insufficient understanding of the topic from previous (non-flipped learning) students. One more day on a foundational concept in mathematics will not be a day wasted.

It's got me to thinking about my traditional classroom lessons.  How many times did I throw too much at students, counting on them to sort it all out - on their own - through homework? Then answer a few questions and move on to the next thing.

I've said it before, but flipped lessons have allowed me to have a much better feel for the pulse of my students. And having a better grasp of what they are and aren't understanding, I am no longer able to continue plowing through material when I know there are issues to clear up. Thankfully, flipped lessons also allow me the time to creatively reteach and not necessarily lose valuable instructional time.

The limit exists.  Fifteen minutes, max.  Some would say even that is too long for 8th graders, but my Pre-AP students seem to handle that length just fine (they definitely like it when they're shorter, though). Any longer is too much.  And will automatically become two days.

Whether my "I don't have enough days to cover everything as it is!" brain likes it or not.