Saturday, September 26, 2015

Coming Out of the Funk While on a Slippery Slope

It was a better week.

At first, I wasn't sure it was going to be. After last week's "brain dump," Monday was once again rough. I thought, "There are going to have to be more 'brain dumps.'"

But things began to turn around on Tuesday. In my morning devotional I was given some scriptures to hold on to when the going is tough. I was encouraged as I went to school, and then I had a full day of training and planning with the math department. It was a great day. We talked, we learned. I was able to "get out of my head." I was able to map out the rest of the semester and see that my pacing is on the right track. I decided to silence a (virtual) voice that was pulling me down.

I approached Wednesday with some trepidation, wondering if Tuesday's good feelings would come crashing down. But they didn't. It was a good day.

Then Thursday was good. And Friday, too.

Maybe the fog is lifting. I will ride the wave as long as it lasts and (try to) remember what I've learned when things become difficult again (because they will).

So...I promised a blog about the fun things happening in the classroom. Today I will make good on that promise.

I've mentioned changing my pacing for both my preps this year. I found a pacing guide that was posted on our state department of education website. For both Algebra 1 and 8th grade Pre-Algebra, the year started with functions and moved into linear functions. Both classes have been working with slope this week (hence the bad reference in the title of this blog post).

I started both classes with "Slope Dude." Students groan and critique the short, not-too-fancy video, but they quote it over and over when working with slope. I win. :)

Pre-Algebra then focused on finding slope from a graph. After two days in class and then (attempting to) apply that knowledge to show that it doesn't matter which two points you choose to find slope from a graph, the other Pre-Algebra teacher and I were not convinced the students had it. So after our PD day, we spent one more day on it, using this color-by-number activity that the students were really excited about (sometimes it doesn't take much). I got to watch my students work, and by the end of that activity I felt more comfortable with my students' grasp of finding slope from a graph.

They then moved to finding slope from a table and slope between two points. My students this year are struggling with integers, so we pulled out a number line for this. I also stole Rockstar Math Teacher's Mini-Table. Oh, my goodness! They got it! They were good at it! They felt good about it!

I wish I had taken a closer picture of the mini-tables; check out Rockstar Math Teacher's blog!

We finished the week with some mixed practice. I was encouraged by the learning my students were demonstrating. I used task cards from this set (we haven't done slope from an equation, yet; that's coming up). Students were given a sheet of paper with coordinate planes, tables, and mini-tables to use to show their work (I threatened them if they wrote on my pretty, laminated task cards!). Some students would graph information in tables. One student didn't recall how to find slope on a graph, and he began using the mini-tables. While part of the reason for these actions was incomplete directions from me, I was so thrilled to see them making connections between tables and graphs and choosing the strategy they liked best. I heard several declarations of, "This is easy!" and "I like tables best" and "I like the graphs best."

You should have seen this girl showing her partner the difference between 2 points on the number line; it was exciting to watch!

Monday they begin to apply slope to average rate of change, and I look forward to their understanding deepening.

Algebra 1 has gone faster and deeper with slope. I told them up front they were benefitting from what I learned from last year's worst video. After watching "Slope Dude" and identifying the types of slope, they watched a video about slope from a graph and table. Their class practice was some of the task cards mentioned earlier. They learned the slope formula in a video. In class they chose between some activities in this bundle. I am noticing some struggle with integers in this group, too, but with some one-on-one instruction and help from peers, they're coming along nicely.

Working with the slope formula

They looked at average rate of change from graphs and situations at the end of the week, and they seem to be comfortable with it. We talked a lot this week about precision in answers and how to write "pretty" sentences.

Analyzing graphs and justifying answers

Eighth graders are also looking at slope, rate of change, and distance-time graphs in science right now. AND their history teacher discussed slope and the building of the pyramids. There is some major cross-curricular teaching going on! And hopefully some connections being made and some confirmation that what is being learned in one particular classroom is useful in other classrooms.

I feel good about this past week. I feel like all my classes and students made progress. I feel huge gains were made this week in the area that I believe affects learning more than anything else - relationships. Building relationships is why I do a lot of what I do in the classroom, and part of my frustration the last few weeks was not seeing what I experienced last year. This week some of it clicked.

I ended the week confident everything's gonna be OK.

I'll just need reminding of that the next time I feel otherwise.

Monday, September 21, 2015

#flipclass Flash Blog: Grading

It's funny that tonight's #flipclass topic is grading when I almost considered skipping #flipclass to finish grading a set of tests that NEEDS to be finished.

The suggested topic is "your best grading hack or what you still need to figure out regarding grades/workflow."

I don't have any life-changing hacks. I did learn from a dear friend and colleague just in the last couple of years how to be a little more efficient with a set of papers. I grade everybody's "Side 1," then the next side, etc. I would love to know how much time I save not flipping pages 50-gazillion times.

I've also become better at using snippets of time here and there in class to grade things. Flipping my class helped tremendously with this. I *have* more snippets of time in class, because I'm not up front talking for 45 minutes.

Overall, I bring less home than I used to.

I'm doing more things digitally this year and trying to learn how to grade and give feedback digitally. I am finding there is a learning curve to digital grading, and I'm not super-efficient with it at this point.

I'm trying more and more to give grades that matter. I try to grade standards. I like to wait and take a grade when I'm confident my students have learned what we've been working on. This means fewer grades and sometimes longer between grades. It also means answering "Is this for a grade?" and explaining why it's not many, many times.

I also find as I teach differently and give different class activities - no longer do I assign book page after book page or worksheet after worksheet - that these types of activities are harder to assign a grade to. So much in my classroom is now done with a partner. Kids are doing lots of work and learning, but how do I give a number grade to things like that?

I wish grades would go away. I don't see it happening any time soon, but I wish the focus would be less on the number on a paper and more on what is being learned.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Transforming as an Educator

Let me apologize ahead of time. I need a "brain dump." I might ramble a bit in this post (OK, OK, I probably ramble in more than a few posts). You won't see it, but I might shed a few tears while writing this post.

The past couple of weeks have been hard.

They've been challenging. A struggle. I've felt off my game. Out of my comfort zone. I've wondered if I've been effective. I've wondered if my students are learning anything. I've wondered if I'm making any progress. I've wondered if I'm moving too slowly.

I remembered this post. I've re-read it more than once in the last week or so. I've been reminded that these feelings come - and they do eventually go (and I'm once again thankful I decided to blog my journey).

It's been hard to put my finger on the exact cause (or causes) of the struggle. There always seem to be several things that contribute to it.

But I think the biggest factor for this particular struggle is change.

I continue to change as a teacher. To grow (I hope).

And it's hard.

I was taught a certain way. I learned to teach a certain way. And I taught a certain way for at least the first 15 years of my career (I'm starting year 19). Here's the material, here are your practice problems. Tomorrow we'll do the same thing all over again. Next week we'll take a test. Hope you understand everything!

Things began changing about 3 years ago. The start of AP and Pre-AP courses and new types of lessons. The move to strategic teaching and restructuring of class time. The implementation of new standards based on Common Core. All of those things happened outside of my classroom but affected my classroom.

Inside my classroom, I started using interactive notebooks. I flipped my Algebra 1 classes. I found educators through Twitter and blogs who influenced and changed my personal philosophies and policies.

I am NOT the same teacher I was even a few years ago.

And I like who I'm becoming. But sometimes - and the last couple of weeks, a lot of the time - I wonder if I'm doing it all wrong.

I'm teaching standards in a different order this year. That has me a bit unsure about my timing and wondering if I'm going to be able to "cover everything."

I have not touched a textbook in 6 weeks of school. OK, that's not exactly true. I have consulted my textbooks - mostly for worthy problems to use in class - but students have not been told "turn to page such-and-so and do numbers 2-32 even." I have been better and better over the last few years of bringing in other resources, but I've still used the textbook as my outline and guide and have started from the beginning of the book and followed it throughout the year. This is the first time I've started with the standards and built lessons from there. I am WAY out of my box.

I am trying to focus less on skills and more on critical thinking and application. I have used some lessons I have really liked, but these lessons aren't often neat and tidy and able to be finished in a 51-minute class period.

I am attempting to use more technology in different ways. I don't want to use tech for the sake of tech; I want it to enhance what students are learning. It takes time - time for me to develop, time for students to learn. Sometimes it doesn't work.

I want my students to be less dependent on me to get them started. I am attempting to have directions posted (on Google Classroom) and activities ready so students can come into class, read the plan, and get started. This is proving to be a HUGE learning curve for the students (and me). "What do we do with this?" "What do the directions say?" "Oh...we're supposed to be doing something?" "Have you read the directions?" "Are we supposed to ____?" "Open the directions." I am learning how to give good directions - and I love that I can change a Google Doc and students can see it instantaneously - and I am learning to be consistent. I kick myself those days I don't have directions ready and a student or two starts looking for them and says, "What/where are the directions? What are we supposed to do next?"

Hands down, Twitter has been the biggest contributor to my growth as an educator over the last few years. I have made so many connections - I would even call them friends - who have added positively to my practice. I have collaborated with teachers in California and Chicago. I have learned from and been encouraged by other flipped classroom teachers. I get ideas from teachers all over the world (go follow #teach180!).

But lately I have read things that - while challenging me - have caused me to doubt myself. There seems to be a growing, vocal anti-flipped classroom movement. Some educators - smart educators, passionate educators, educators from whom I have learned so much - seem to come across with the attitude that if you are not doing one thing or are doing another, you are doing it wrong. And I begin to feel I'm not changing fast enough or I'm still failing my students in too many ways.

(As a side note, I think we educators need to have each others' backs. We don't need to be tearing each other down. Yes, we need to be challenged, and we need to learn and change and grow, but we are all on our own journeys and in different places for various reasons. Let's give each other grace and encouragement. I feel we're becoming too much like the proponents of various diets: "If you're doing THIS or aren't doing THAT, not only are you WRONG, you are EVIL!" Stop it!!!! that soapbox.)

So...what do I learn from (another) period of struggle? I'm not the butterfly, yet. Don't know that I ever will be. I never want to think I have "arrived" and have nothing else to learn or change.

I am confident there will come days when I feel more confident. I do not despair that right now I feel like I'm not seeing the ball very well.

I have talked to other math teachers in my building, and we are all having similar feelings. We're all stretching ourselves and changing our approaches and a little unsure of ourselves. I never wish my negative feelings on others, but it is nice to know I'm not alone.

I continue to learn from other teachers. I got help from an unexpected source just yesterday. But one of the things that has been causing me stress with all this out-of-the-box teaching has been my seating. Thanks to help from a colleague, I think I have the solution!

I came to a big realization this week that probably should have been obvious all along. Be myself. Learn from others, take what I can use, make small changes that over time will add up, but don't try to be someone else. Or who someone else thinks I should be.

Listen to my students. As we finished a linear equation problem set this week - a focus on application instead of rote practice of a skill - and I told my students it was time to clean up and pack up - there was at least one, "What? It's time to go already?" followed by, "That's because this was fun!" Making equations and tables and graphs from situations is fun? Whodathunkit? ;)

We moved into new material this week - slope - and we made connections to one of those not so neat lessons - Interpreting Distance-Time Graphs - completed almost 2 weeks ago. Students remembered that lesson! Details about that lesson! They are learning how to read graphs and analyze situations, skills so much more useful to them than "use this formula" or "complete this table" twenty times. They are learning to pay attention to detail. They are explaining and writing and thinking. Sometimes I wish I could give them a sheet and say, "Do these 25 problems and show me you know something." But what they're showing me they know is so much better than that.

I press on. Through the easy days and the hard days. The hard days make me appreciate the ones where everything clicks even more. But they are also the ones where I grow the most.

If you decided to tackle this post and made it the end, thank you. My friends at school will tell you I "unload" pretty frequently. They get to hear it almost every afternoon. Just know that I feel much better having gotten it all out.

And next week I hope to have a post about exciting lessons in my classroom!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

First Student Reflections

I like to get students' thoughts about the flipped classroom after they've a had a few weeks with it. Last year, I wrote a question by hand at the bottom of their first test, asking them to share any thoughts they had about the process. This year, I used a Google Form and asked them to complete it after their first test.

The Google Form had four questions:

  1. What do you consider the best part of our flipped classroom?
  2. What could be improved about our flipped classroom?
  3. What do you consider the best part of using Google Classroom?
  4. What could be improved about Google Classroom?
I was a little concerned when at least two students asked me what a flipped classroom was. Maybe that's a good sign, and they just see it as what we do and not something different or special? Who knows....

Students see many positives about flipping instruction. A few aspects that were mentioned by multiple students:
  • Being able to watch videos ahead of time (I try to give a week's worth on Friday or Monday)
  • The ability to stop and rewind and re-watch a video as needed and not hold other students back
  • Watching videos without class distractions
  • Learning more (and better) than with "normal" homework
  • Doing practice problems together in class
  • Manageable homework load
A couple of my favorite quotes:
  • "The best part of the flipped classroom is that instead of going home and having questions about homework that my dad can't answer, it is explained in-depth to me in the videos."
  • "We don't have as much homework, so we can actually go to bed at a decent time."
One student mentioned parents watching the videos to be able to help. Yea!

The most popular answer to what could be improved was "I can't think of anything." I appreciate that, but I am honestly looking for ways to make my classroom better. Most suggestions centered around the types of practice problems in the videos. A few students mentioned more practice problems and varying the types of problems. One suggested I not give answers to the problems I give them to try on their own. Another suggested they make up their own problems. One student asked for more detail in the videos, one suggested I go a little faster. A few students mentioned making sure the videos weren't too long. One student asked for a "fun" question in each video that could be discussed in class.

I will continue to look at the amount and types of practice I offer in the videos. I changed that part of the videos last year due to student suggestions, and it is apparently an aspect of videos that is particularly important to the students.

Since we are using Google Classroom for the first time, I included the two questions related to Classroom in the Google Form. It is important to me that what we are using is working for students. Students overwhelmingly said they prefer Google Classroom to Edmodo (as a school we "officially" use Edmodo, but a few teachers are "piloting" Classroom, so some students are using both platforms). They like how Classroom is organized and how they can keep up with what's due in each class. More than one said they liked being able to communicate with teachers through Classroom. From my end, I particularly enjoy being able to converse with students in this manner. I am giving more feedback than before, and I believe it is being paid attention to more than before.

The one suggestion that was made the most was the addition of a planner/calendar to Google Classroom. Google just released that an integrated calendar was coming in about a month, so my students and I are excited about that.

I like asking my students questions. I like knowing what they think (well, most of the time, LOL) and what's working for them and what's not. The reflection process is good for them, and it's good for me. While I love hearing what I want to hear or expect, I am also ready to hear constructive criticism and willing to make improvements when necessary.

The next step is to send a similar sort of reflection questionnaire home to parents. I just need to figure out how to do it digitally.