And So It Begins…

The year in full swing, and it feels like I’ve been teaching for days upon days, even though it has only been two days, so I suppose I should have said “day upon day.” It shocks me (BZZZ!) that a person can go from lazing about, jaunting off for coffee, picking up a book and reading it through in a day, watching an entire season of real housewives of (insertanycityhereandit’sprollytrueforme), going to the restroom whenever you please… to being trapped in a building (no AC!) with a hierarchy, having to answer to a lot of someone elses, having inhaled and not having the opportunity to exhale until hours later. And then you remember: oh yeah, I have to plan for the next day.

So it’s like I’ve never left. And I love it. There are things I cringe at, but heck if seeing my kids and my colleague friends, and getting to think about how I can do what I do but less sucky: it’s thrilling. I suspect this glow will be gone in a week, so don’t worry: my normal self will return soon enough.

Glow Self:

I just wanted to talk about the first two days of Algebra II. I usually start out the year with a honest but (upon reflection when I looked at it a few days ago) boring exhortation about mathematics and why it’s useful, beautiful, interesting. Then I talk a bit about the course expectations. And then we jump straight into talking about sets. I did it this way because I wanted to dive right in and show them what I valued: doing math. This wasn’t going to be a class where we get derailed with non-math things.

Well, I was unsatisfied with that, because it was boring. A boring set of slides with me speaking (albeit with a wildly inflecting voice, which can make anything less boring), followed by possibly the most boring topic: union and intersection of sets. It also was me lecturing about sets.

This year I vowed to take risks in how I teach. Less lecturing. Less partner work. More group work. More deep thinking and problem solving. And since I made a post saying some of the things I wanted to try, I decided to scrap everything and start anew.

I looked through the Park School of Baltimore’s curriculum and found a perfect thing to transition us into sets: mathematical symbols.

So on the first day, I sat kids down in their seats, I explained how they were to move their chairs to get in their groups. I asked them how they were feeling, I told them my goal was to make them feel good about math. Then, suddenly, I asked students to get in their groups. I projected the first page of the Park School packet that I photocopied. We did one part of one problem together (I had kids read the problem aloud and work in their groups to come up with the answer). Then I set them free, after handing out the packet, with only the following instructions.

Then they started (some faster than others) and I went to the following SmartBoard page [update: here if you want to download it]…

… and started the participation quiz (what I’m calling “groupwork feedback”). [To understand what comes next, you have to read the link above.] I didn’t explain anything. I just typed and dragged and typed and typed and walked around. Kids would ask me questions, and I would just shrug. They stopped asking me questions and started relying on each other and their brains. I didn’t stop groups which were off task. One group of four broke up into two groups of two, and then rejoined. I just kept on filling in the grid, not talking about it.

Honestly, the idea that I would have to be filling in this grid scared me. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. I didn’t know if I would have the heart to put “off task” if a group were off task. I didn’t know if I could keep up, or if I could hear the kids talking, or keep track of everything. But it was easier than I thought. Students worked for about 30 minutes. I think that’s the right amount of time, because I wouldn’t have gotten a critical mass of feedback if they had worked any less.

Then I stopped them. What I noticed after doing it in two classes is that engaging in this type of observations of groups is super interesting and helpful for me. I had a good sense of which groups knew how to do groupwork already and which groups didn’t. I heard some great conversations, really great conversations, about some rich problems (“does it mean that the only way to get an odd number is with …”). I saw group dynamics at work (especially the difficulties that present themselves with groups of 4). I also saw that one of my two classes already has a good handle on how to work in groups, and the other is going to need some time and coaching.

We spent 12 minutes talking about the results. We talked about if “I don’t know” is a good or bad thing to have on that chart (it depends…) and finally I asked groups to look at this thing that I whipped up (not great, but I needed something) and to classify themselves, and to think of some ways they could improve and think of some things they did well. And we went around and had each group explain.

Although terrifying, I’m glad I did it on the first day. It was scary to try something new (new problems! groupwork feedback!). I feel confident that I showed my kids what I hope to value in the classroom this year. Communication. True thinking. Independence. Collaboration in the learning process. (I don’t see the last two things as contradictory.)

That was the first day. Today (the second day) I saw only one of my classes. And what I did in it didn’t unfold nearly as well, in my opinion. I wanted kids to present their solutions. The night before I had them do a few more problems on their own, so I gave groups 8 minutes at the start of class to talk through their work, telling ‘em that they were going to be asked to explain.

Then I had individual students come up and explain their work for some of the problems (after a short discussion on how it’s great to not get something and to have misconceptions / confusions, because that’s where we learn, and a discussion on how to be a good audience for the explainers).

They put their work up under the document projector. And talked. But what I learned is: I need to work on having students be effective presenters. And how to encourage the audience engage with the presenters more. And how to balance me intervening versus letting the student go on. (It’s hard for me to let go of the “explain” part of class.) So now I know I have to work on this. (Luckily I was meeting with my teacher friend mentor for lunch, who does a lot of modeling work in her classroom, and she had a lot of good things to suggest. )

So there we are. I’m trying to be very intentional (thanks @bowmanimal for the word) in how I start the year. I also printed out “exit slips” for my classes tomorrow because my goal is to get formative feedback at least once a week in each class. And I tried to do “What’s the Question?” (known in my class as “Que es la Pregunta?”) in Calculus to activate prior knowledge on rational functions. However it kinda totally fell flat. It did what it should have, but it wasn’t as enjoyable/fun as I hoped. I think I might need to rethink how I set it up.

And there you are. Some words on the first couple days of school.