Monday, August 31, 2015

#flipclass Flash Blog: Classroom Community

Tonight's #flipclass topic is building community and collaboration in the classroom.

Classroom community is another area where I've come a long way in the last few years. It wasn't that long ago that I said, pretty regularly, "I don't like group work."

A couple of years ago I discovered partners. Students seem to work much better with partners. They're more focused and accomplish more. I can put two sets of partners together when I need to, but I almost always begin work in class as partners.

Last year my colleagues and I found partner-matching cards, and this makes the process even better. Partners are random, and nine times out of ten this works extremely well. Occasionally a partnership or two has to be adjusted.

I like students working together, because they often seem to learn more from each other than they possibly could from me. They can reword things in ways they understand. The student helping another solidifies their understanding, and the student being helped gets to turn around and help someone else.

The benefit of student collaboration became very evident to me last year, when I first flipped my classroom. Since so much practice and application was done in class, students got to talk to each other a lot. They got to refine their mathematical vocabulary. And learn how to use their notes as a reference. And how to ask good questions.

What troubles do I have with my classroom community?

I have a few students who prefer to work alone. I allow this, but I sometimes wish those students would occasionally get to know the students around them and learn from them.

Middle-schoolers will be middle-schoolers, and they can sometimes get off-task easily. I keep this under control by circulating and asking groups where they are in the activity and what they're working on.

Middle-schoolers can also blurt things out that don't need to be said and can come across as mean. I have a sign in my room that encourages students to THINK before they speak: Is it True? Necessary? Kind? Most of the time they just think they're being funny, but they need frequent direction on what is and isn't appropriate to say.

How do I scaffold collaboration?

This year (we're almost 4 weeks in!) I find myself joining groups quite a bit. I facilitate the conversation and try to model positive collaboration.

I fairly happy with my classroom community. As I continue to seek to improve my classroom community I would like to find more meaningful, deeper ways for students to collaborate.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Spending a Week with Pythagoras

Standards dealing with the Pythagorean Theorem fall in our eighth grade course of study. If I don't cover those standards with my eighth grade Algebra 1 students, they will miss learning and using the Pythagorean Theorem. And high school teachers will come after me. :)

I always cover the Pythagorean Theorem with my Algebra 1 students, but this year I decided to follow the lead of a blogger friend who also teaches Algebra 1 to eighth graders and start the year with it (after discussing square roots and real numbers). I covered the material in fewer days than I will with my Pre-Algebra students, because, after all, we still have a lot of Algebra 1 standards to get to.

We started the unit with a visual proof of the theorem. It's a proof out of a book I've used since teaching high school geometry another lifetime ago, Visualized Geometry (I just looked it up; the book was published in 1990!). A right triangle has squares drawn off each side, the squares from the legs are cut and arranged to cover the square off the hypotenuse. After some productive struggle with getting the pieces to "fit," students readily see that "a^2 + b^2 = c^2." (I didn't get any good pictures of the final product. And as we were disposing of all the pieces, a student in the last period of the day said, "We should have glued that in our INBs!" Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that? I made a note of it for next time.)

I have to cover the Pythagorean Theorem, its converse, applications of the Pythagorean Theorem, and using the Pythagorean Theorem to find the distance between points in the coordinate plane. Students had 3 videos dealing with these topics.

In class I tried several new activities this year. I was very pleased with the work students were able to do with the content.

To practice using the Pythagorean Theorem, I used this activity from Equation Freak. It was SO much better than a page of "find the missing side" problems. Students got great practice with visualization and finding lengths of sides in a diagram that will help them in future math classes. And they had one, final goal. We did not get completely finished with the activity in class, but I gave students the option to finish it at home. A good number of students brought it in completed the next day!

"Pythagorean Stack" by Equation Freak
We practiced applications of the Pythagorean Theorem using task cards I've had for a few years from Live Love Math. I added QR codes to the back so students could check their work as they went.

Pythagorean Applications
To find distance on the coordinate plane, I used Rockstar Math Teacher's "Pythagorean Zoo" activity. I have not done a lot with Socrative, but the activity went smoothly, and the kids enjoyed it. The funniest comment all day was, "Mrs. Gibbs! Are you ruining the zoo with MATH?!?"

"Pythagorean Zoo" by Rockstar Math Teacher
I was confident my students understood and could use the Pythagorean Theorem, so the day before the test I was able to do a few activities I had not had time for earlier in the week. We did a couple of problems with the converse of the theorem. In hindsight, these problems should have been done earlier in the week, after they had seen the converse in a video. Many students did not remember seeing anything like that, and I had to point them to their notes. I should have reinforced the topic right after they had watched the video.

We looked at the Pythagorean Theorem in 3D. This problem led to some great class discussions and was also good for their visualization skills. Having taught Geometry in that former life, I know how important those skills are!

We finished the unit with another lesson I snagged from Equation Freak. We watched a clip from The Wizard of Oz and "corrected the scarecrow." Like Jan, I had a few students who had never seen the movie. The activity was a great exercise in using precise mathematical vocabulary.

"Correct the Scarecrow"
I received another funny comment with this activity: "Now you're ruining The Wizard of Oz with math!" But I'm hoping students will begin to see we can find math EVERYwhere.

I have more pictures than normal because I'm participating in #teach180 on Twitter. I'm trying to tweet a picture of something going on in my classroom every day. Some are blogging every day, but I know better than to try a daily blog post. :) The highlight of my day for the last couple of weeks has been scrolling through the pictures posted with the hashtag. I've already gotten (and used!) a couple of ideas from others' posts.

I'm also trying to focus my blog this year on what we do in class. I make the videos, my students watch the videos, but the real magic happens in the 51 minutes I have with my students.

As I've said before, none of these meaningful, engaging, beneficial activities would have been possible in my traditional classroom. Or the unit would have taken twice as long as it did. I have much more fun in my flipped classroom, and I know my students do, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

#flipclass Flash Blog: Connecting with Parents

Connecting with parents is much different in my "2nd career" as a teacher than it was when I first started teaching. I began my teaching career in 1993 at the high school level before the age of email. I taught at the high school for six years and could probably count the number of parent conferences I had during that time on one hand.

I came back to teaching in 2004, this time at the middle school level. I was floored at the level of parent contact. Not only was email now an option, I was in LOTS of parent conferences!

I think it is important to keep parents informed.

I send all of the basic information home at the beginning of the year and share a few more details at Open House.

This year I am using Remind to send weekly texts with upcoming plans attached and other reminder texts as needed.

Parents have access to their student's online gradebook. I try to keep grades updated weekly (every 2 weeks at the most) so there are no surprises.

I try to answer emails quickly. Parents always seem very grateful for how soon I respond to them.

If there is something I think needs to be addressed regarding a student, I will email the parent or call. I am not a fan of the phone and prefer email, but I will do whatever is most likely to get me in touch with a parent.

If a parent requests more frequent communication, I try to meet that parent's (and, subsequently, student's) needs.

As far as my flipped classroom, I share it with the parents who come to Open House (admittedly, not many). After that initial introduction, I think my students do all the sharing. I am just beginning my 2nd flipped year, but I have received ZERO negative feedback from parents. At the end of last year I sent emails and asked for parents' thoughts regarding the flipped lessons. Every parent who responded had something positive to say, and several gave me some good perspectives on the process I had not thought about.

As a teacher, our dealing with parents is very similar to that with our students. The relationship is all-important. If a positive relationship built on respect is established, things go much more smoothly. If parents know I am on their side and have their child's back, we can accomplish a lot together.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Starting Strong and "Thinking Rationally"

We've finished two weeks of school!

It's been a great start. We got into a routine very quickly, and I feel like I've known my classes much longer than two weeks.

As usual for this time of year, I am very, very tired. My legs feel like I've started training for 5Ks again. My brain shuts down mid-to-late afternoon but occasionally gets rebooted by a quick nap when my schedule allows. It then shuts down for good some time after 8 PM.

It's a good tired, though. :) I'm having fun. Probably way too much fun.

Our students did not start getting iPads until the 3rd day of school (last year they got them at schedule pick-up), so I didn't get started with videos until the beginning of this week. These students had heard about my flipped classroom, so I don't think there was as much apprehension about the process as I had at the beginning of last year.

Like last year, we watched the first video together in class. I showed them how to access the videos, how to watch the videos, and how to take notes. We also experimented submitting the notes in Google Classroom.

I am piloting Classroom this year, so on top of learning how to watch instructional videos, my students are learning a new system of accessing and submitting assignments. They've been exposed to a whole new world of Google this week: we've used Docs, Sheets, and Forms for different assignments. We've had the normal start-of-year network hiccups.

All that to say...things I've had planned have taken much longer than I anticipated.

I planned to cover square roots and real numbers in two days; we're wrapping them up tomorrow, five days after we started.

But it's been an educational process. I've been able to model persistence and patience. I've tried to make it as stress- and worry-free as possible. The students have played around with things on their own time and figured out how to do some of the stuff we've been trying to do in class.

So, with everything going on, did the introduction of flipped lessons this week make an impact?

I believe so.

After we watched the square roots video on Monday, the students watched the video on the real number system Monday night.

The magic started on Tuesday.

These students made an almost instant connection between the video, the notes they took, and the work we did in class (it took last year's group a few lessons to see that it all worked together). As they talked amongst themselves (mathematical discourse, YEA!) and asked each other questions, I would hear things like, "Do you remember when she said in the video..." and "What do your notes say?" and the occasional "Did you watch the video?!?"

"Thinking Rationally" and learning lots!

My favorite activity of the week was this simple little gem from "Rise Over Run" on Teachers Pay Teachers. Students were given a list of numbers and two number lines. They had to decide which numbers were rational and which were irrational, placing each on separate number lines.

The beauty came with the numbers involving pi. Many students assumed if pi was in an expression it was automatically irrational. But one of the expressions was pi + 6 over 6 + pi. Students first started noticing something was a little off when they tried to put the expressions involving pi in their calculator. Sometimes they would get an answer that didn't fit on the given number line (cue discussions about calculators and the order of operations). Other students would notice they got a "nice" (rational) answer on the calculator (if they put the expression into the calculator correctly) but still plot it on the number line designated for irrational numbers.

As I circulated among groups and began having discussions with them, it was such a joy to see understanding of how numbers and operations work together. To see them expand what they already know about simplifying fractions. To lay foundations for mathematical content they will encounter well after Algebra 1. I tweeted that afternoon that there had been some "crazy learning" going on in my classroom.

And why was such crazy learning able to occur? Because the basic content had been presented in a video outside of class. Because I was able to have conversations with my students as they were grappling with material. Because I was able to correct misconceptions while they were happening, not after they had already been ingrained.

Score 1 (of many) for Year 2 of flipped learning.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Twas the Night Before School Started

I wanted to be all creative and write a poem, but I've decided if that was my goal I should have started a couple of weeks ago.

Students will enter my classroom tomorrow morning. And after wondering two weeks ago if my very hectic, very fast summer had been "enough," I am confident I am ready.

I have always loved the start of the school year. It is so full of promise and possibility. Oh, I know there will be frustrations and difficult days, but at the beginning of the year the hope of what CAN be shines brightly.

This year will have lots of new. I'm rearranging the order of topics in both Algebra and Pre-Algebra to hopefully be more efficient and give more time to what's most important. I working with a new colleague (a brand-new teacher who has brought back so many memories of my first year).  I am moving closer to a digital classroom. I am moving farther away from a textbook and closer to the type of classroom I want to have: one of inquiry, discovery, discussion, collaboration, and application. I plan to flip lessons for my Pre-Algebra kids (and continue to flip my Algebra classes, of course!).

I have started something "new" and "big" each year for the last several school years. Last year I told my friend that I would like one year where I didn't feel like I was starting over, where I could take what I did the year before and just repeat it.

As I've reflected on that statement this summer - while reading and planning for this year's "new" - I'm not sure I meant it.

I thrive on new. I want to be a better teacher. I want to improve what I do in the classroom and what and how my students learn. I want my students to have a positive, beneficial experience with math. I want each school year to be better than the previous one.

So, as I stand at the threshold of a new school year with ideas in my head and plans on paper and drive in my heart, I am ready to get started!

I can't wait to meet my new students in the morning and begin our journey through 8th grade math in Room 12 of Arab Junior High School!