General Ideas for the Classroom

Everyone Has To Raise Their Hands… and other thoughts

We haven’t started school year. But last week and this week I’ve done some brainstorming about things I intend to do this school year (which *ahem* has some aphorism involving a road and hell associated with it, right?), and so I thought I’d pull out those few concrete little bits that deal with questioning that I want to do this year.

  1. If your group has a question, everyone in the group must raise their hand to call me over… This is how I started the last couple years of precalculus (all my kids work in groups). The idea was that if a kid had a question, they needed to first talk with their group so that the math teacher (me!) was not the sole mathematical authority in the classroom. I quickly added on … and I will call on one of you randomly to ask me the question. That way everyone in the group had to be comfortable asking the question, and that it was a real group question and not just an individual question.Last year, for some reason, I didn’t keep up with this practice, and started answering individual questions. I need to remember to keep up with this practice, because it’s awesome  and it works to get kids really talking and explaining without you.
  2. I taught calculus for seven years, and when I started standards based grading, I used to put after each question testing each skill a little box:
    rateIt was useful when I met with students to discuss their tests. If they felt shaky and did poorly, that meant one thing to me. If they felt confident and did poorly, that meant another. If they felt shaky and did awesome, that meant something totally different. It led to some good conversations, and got kids to be more meta-cognitive. It also led to some interesting written feedback on the tests (even if I didn’t meet with the student).But I only ever did that in calculus, and I don’t teach calculus anymore. So I want to incorporate this on my assessments in my other classes — at least geometry and precalculus. When I’m asking a “mathy” question, this is a sort of different additional question that helps me put their response in some context.
  3. Questions can have different purposes for me, even though I don’t (in the moment) think of them this way. Mostly they are to either (a) to get a student to go from a place of not understand to understanding (through asking questions to get them to think and make connections), or they are (b) to help me understand what a kid (or my class as a whole) is understanding.If I’m asking a question to the whole class, and my purpose is to figure out what my kids understand and what they don’t, I’m not going to have my kids raise their hands anymore. I got to the point where sometimes I would call on kids with their hands raised, and sometimes not. I mean: if the kids all raising their hands to answer a question feel they know the answer, then why am I calling on them? Instead, I am thinking of stealing an idea from a friend who taught middle school: THE POPSICLE STICKS OF DESTINY. I am going to have my kids’ names written down on popsicle sticks and pull them out of a mason jar (because I’m such a hipster!) to randomly call on someone. Yeah, index cards work too, but INDEX CARDS OF DESTINY is way less fun to say dramatically.

    If I do this, however, I need to make sure that the kid who doesn’t know something or is confused feels like the classroom is a safe space. This year I’ll be teaching the advanced sections, so there is a lot of insecurity that these kids have about “being smart” (*cringe* I hate that word) and “appearing dumb” to their classmates. I have to brainstorm how I’m going to publicly reward kids for having good questions or being confused but doing something about that confusion or for being wrong but for owning it and saying “I NEED TO GET THINGS WRONG IN ORDER TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO BE RIGHT. AND I’M AWESOME FOR KNOWING THAT.” Heck, maybe I’ll have a poster made which says that, and have kids read it aloud occasionally when they’re wrong. And I should point to it and say it when I am wrong. Or maybe that’s dumb. I don’t know.

That’s about it for now. Hopefully more to come as I figure things out!

[cross posted on the betterQs blog!]

9th Graders Final Exam Prep / 11th Graders and College Recommendations

This is a two part post, but it’s going to be short. The first part is about final exams for freshman, and how to help them. The second part is about teaching students how to properly approach teachers for college recommendations.

First Final Exams in High School

I’m teaching freshpeople (9th graders) for the first time. And I’ve come to learn how important structure is for them. I’ve realized how useful it is to make topic lists for them (next year, I’m going to ween them off of them and show them how to create their own!). I’ve learned how important it is to be explicit with them about everything. And I’ve learned that many don’t quite know how to study.

In exactly a month, my kids are going to have their geometry final. So I whipped up a guide to explain how they might go about facing this daunting task. It’s not perfect. I hate the fact that it is so long and text heavy. But I want to get it out to my kids soon — so editing will have to wait for next year.

The truth is I don’t know if any of them are going to use it. But I’m going to at least provide them with some ideas — and maybe one or two things will resonate with them. Here it is below (and in .docx form). If you have any additional advice you give to your young ones that would go well in this, please throw them in the comments. Although I might not be able to add them for my kids this year, I can revise it for next year.

11th Graders Asking for College Recommendations

I am teaching a lot of juniors this year, which means I will be asked to write a lot of college recommendations. I never learned how to formally ask for a recommendation until I was in college — but when I was taught by a professor (who was helping guide me in the grad school application process) it was enlightening. I crafted a cover letter, got my best work together, and set up a time to meet with my professors who I was asking for aletting of recommendation from. At that meeting, I outlined why their classes were important to me, what I took away from them, and things I was proud of — and why I would really appreciate if they would be willing to take the time to do this huge thing for me. In other words, I was “pitching” this. It was thought-out, respectful, and professional.

When I first started teaching, kids would ask me for recommendations as a “by the way” in the hallway, or in a short one line email. I don’t allow for that anymore. I make sure they sit down with me and we talk through it. I ask them to fill out an extensive set of questions which often helps me frame the kids in my recommendation (if I don’t yet have a framing device in mind), and lets me learn about kids in a different way.

This year I sent an email out to my juniors, being as explicit as possible. It isn’t to make their lives harder. It is to teach them skills that are usually never explicitly taught. And all of this helps me craft a better recommendation.

Hi all,

I know it’s about the time that y’all are going to be thinking about soliciting college recommendations. If you are thinking of asking me to craft one, you should read this email. If you are certain you are not, you don’t need to read past this!

I know early in the third quarter I talked briefly about this in class, but I figured you should have it in writing too. First off, you should talk with your college counselor before approaching teachers about recommendations. They will be able to help you figure out if you’re asking the right people, who can write about the right qualities, for the colleges you are considering.

If you are going to approach me about being a recommender, there are some things you need to know. I am not a teacher who is grade-focused. I’m a teacher who values reflection, growth, hard-work, and demonstrated passion. If you’re a student who struggled but has shown a transformation in how you see and appreciate mathematics, or in your approach to effectively learning mathematics, or in how you communicate mathematics, or in your ability to work effectively and kindly in a group, or something else—all that is important to me. On the other hand, if you have done well on assessments, that is all well-and-good… but it is important that you are more than that… it is important to me that you have shown a passion to go above and beyond (inside and outside of the classroom and curriculum), or an enthusiasm for the material, or a willingness/eagerness to help others. In other words, it is important that you have thought about yourself, and can talk to me about how you are more than just grades.

That all being said, just a few reminders of what I said in class about recommendations:

· I do not write recommendations in the fall, so if you’re going to ask for one, you must ask me this year. Fall is a very busy time and is too far away; I like to have students fresh in my mind when I write. You also cannot approach me after our last day of classes (May 22).
· I never learned how to properly ask for recommendations until I was in college. So I want to help you learn that skill. (I’ve had to ask for recommendations in high school, college, grad school, and as a teacher.) If you’re going to ask me, send me an email to set up a meeting to talk formally about it. You need to plan this meeting, because you’re going to be in charge of leading it. Think about what you’re going to ask and how you’re going to pitch it.
· I said in class that you should start keeping a list in the back of your notebook of specific moments that you’re particularly proud of (large and small!), and things that you’ve done that might set you apart or make you unique or interesting! You should be sure to bring that to our meeting. If you have specific things you’ve done throughout the year that you are proud of (large or small!), you should bring those too.

As you might suspect, I write recommendations with great integrity—meaning I am honest and specific in what I write.

In the past I’ve been asked for a lot of recommendations from juniors. This year I may have to put a cap on how many I’m writing for, unfortunately, as each recommendation takes a number of hours from start to finish. After we meet, if I agree to write for you, you will be asked to fill out an extensive reflective questionnaire. I recognize that I ask a lot of students who request a recommendation, but I also know how important these recommendations are – and to do justice in the recommendation, these are important to me.

Always,
Mr. Shah

Two Organizational Things I Do

I don’t know if I’ve blogged about these things before. These aren’t Two Classroom Ideas That Will Completely Change Your Teaching or anything. In fact, I’m willing to bet that many of you have tried or currently do something similar. But for me, these two things have made my life easier and my classroom run more smoothly. So in case this helps…

The First Idea

In Geometry, I want my kids to learn to use multiple tools, and find the tools that are the most useful to them at any given moment. One moment they might need patty paper to trace something. Another moment they might need eraseable (this is key!) colored pencils to emphasize different things. Another moment they might want to pull up Geogebra on their laptops. And another moment, they might need a ruler to draw a straight line. Who knows. So what I did at the start of the year was create geometry buckets, populated with the tools that each group might need at any given time.

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I have a different bucket for each group. I color coded most of the items in the bucket (with the exception of the protractors, because I didn’t want to cover any of the angles!). I store the buckets in the room. At any point, kids are allowed to grab them. Sometimes they have to, because they are asked to measure an angle, or draw a circle. When I have them use the giant whiteboards, they have their dry erase markers and an eraser in the buckets. But most of the time, when a kid needs some patty paper, or a ruler to make a diagram, or colored pencils to organize their ideas or annotate a diagram, they’ll just grab the bucket and bring it to their groups. And at the end of each class period, the kids will just put them back.

I thought things would get lost or mixed up. But it’s been a semester, and I just went through the buckets and have found only a few colored pencils were in the wrong boxes, and only a single compass migrated from one box to another. I love these buckets of geometry tools!

The Second Idea

I do tons of groupwork in my classes. And I try to switch up groups often enough for some spice, but let them work together long enough so they can learn to work together (I try to do it two times a quarter). However, when kids are in groups, passing things out and collecting things can be annoyingly time consuming. And if my kids know one thing about me as a teacher: I don’t waste time, not a second.

So here they are: something I’ve been doing for the past few years. Folders. Specifically, each group gets one folder.

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On the front (not photographed), I have a label with the kids’s names on it. Inside are two pockets. The left hand pocket is for things I normally would hand out. (Mainly: the packets that I make for kids to work collaboratively through.) The right hand side has two purposes: (1) I have kids turn in nightly work sometimes, so they will put it in there, and (2) when I mark up the nightly work, I put it back in there and students collect it the next day.* There are also some “The Dog Ate My Homework” forms for when a kid doesn’t turn in their work. Instead of them calling me over and giving me a story explaining what happened, I just have them fill out that form saying why they didn’t have their work.

One huge benefit for having these folders is that it allows me to mix up where the groups sit each day.** When I walk into the classroom, kids aren’t sitting down usually. They are waiting for me. I throw down each folder on group of desks, and then kids sit at the group of desks with their folder on it. That way: kids are in different locations each day, mixing things up. The group in back won’t always be in back! Sometimes I give a kid the folders to put down, and sometimes the power, the sheer power of who sits where, goes to their head. (“Oh, you’re standing by this group of desks? Too bad, I’m putting your folder waaaay over at that far group of desks.”) Fun times.

Now you might say: each day you have to put in the packets you’re going to hand out the next day? Nope.Well, sometimes. But usually not. In classes I’ve taught before, where I have my ducks in a row, I do a massive photocopying of the papers for the entire unit. I lay them out, and fill up the folders. Then I’m pretty much set for a week or two (or more!). Below is a picture of me doing that today!

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That is all. Go back to your regularly scheduled lives now.

UPDATE: I forgot to say: I color code the folders for each class. So red folders = my geometry class, blue folders = one of my precalc classes, green folders = the other one of my precalc classes. I also use a lot of file folders to organize things for me. And for those, I use the same color folders for each of my classes. So, for example, when I give a geometry test, I bring a red file folder to class. And then I keep the taken geometry tests in that file — and when I’m going home, I just throw that red file in my backpack so I can mark ’em up.

*The fact that there is one folder per group also has the added bonus that when one kid forgets to put their name on their nightly work, you know exactly whose it is, because it is in the folder for that specific group (and usually all the other kids put their name on it).

**Someone, somewhere, told me that there was some ed research that suggested that kids sitting in the same spot every day helped them learn better. I have my doubts about that.

Intersections, 2013-2014

Today we had our launch party for Intersections, our school’s math-science journal. Last year a science teacher and I gathered interested students to produce this journal — and they worked tirelessly and did a spectacular job. This year, we have some new students and some old students who served as editors. Here they are giving their speech at the launch party (which was also a pizza-soda party).

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More than anything, I have enjoyed watching the editors become independent leaders, organizing something involving so many people and moving parts, and presenting their creation to administrators, math teachers, science teachers, computer science teachers, and other students. I feel like I’m coming to understand the niche I play in my school: I find ways to make math exist outside of the formal curriculum for kids who want to get more involved. Intersections is one of those spaces — both for editors and for those students who submitted.

If you want to check out this year’s issue, please click on the cover photo (designed by a student) below and it will take you to the website.

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(You can also click here.)

More than anything, if you have the time, just click around and see what cool things you discover!

Although it’s a lot of work, if you have any thoughts about starting something like this at your school, I highly recommend it.

Senior Letter 2013-2014

Every year I write a letter to my seniors. Each year the message is pretty much the same, though the way I deliver it may change a bit based on the class and what I’m feeling at the time. Each year I hate my letter when I’m done, but I decide I’m going to give it out because it’s a tradition and I don’t want to break it, and I convince myself it is not that awful. I hand it out. I’m grateful after I do, because… I suppose I need closure. I have worked with these kids closely for a year (sometimes more). And I have come to care about them all. And although it happens every year — they leave and I stay — and from this point on they slowly begin fading from my memory, right now they are in my life in saturated colors and I know I’m going to miss them and I want the best for them.

So even though I currently hate it, here is this year’s senior letter.

It came packaged with their “who I am” sheet that they wrote about themselves on the first day of class, and two cards I had printed.

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“Explore Mathematics: Part II”

I felt like my first venture into “Explore Mathematics!” was so successful last quarter with my Advanced Precalculus kids that I wanted to build upon that. So this is what I’m doing for “Explore Mathematics!: Part II”

  • Last quarter students scoured the web and did 5 different mini-explorations which exposed them to all the neat math that exists outside of our standard curriculum. This quarter students will be doing up to two more in-depth explorations.
  • Because I don’t want this to be seen as busy work, doing “Explore Mathematics!: Part II” is going to be completely optional. I was glad to read that almost every kid who did the five mini-explorations last quarter didn’t end up finding it busy work, but I suspect doing it a second time would feel tedious.
  • To have some sort of incentive for those who do it, I am going to make each of the two explorations worth 12 points. These explorations will count as a mini-assessment (normal assessments are around 50 points). This is useful for kids because our fourth quarter only has 18 days of instructional time (seriously) — so there are only two major assessments and one minor assessment scheduled. Doing these explorations can act as a way to get another mini-assessment grade in there, that will be low-stress, high-reward. [1]
  • I’m not framing it around the grade boost it will likely provide, but around the fact that it’s an opportunity to do some awesome math explorations, for anyone who wishes to do so.
  • It is still pretty open-ended, but I’m now looking for students to write something to get others to see what they find interesting/intriguing/awesome about something.

Here’s the document I just emailed my kids:

Here it is in .docx form in case you want to modify it.

 

[1] Yes, I do SBG with my calculus kids. Yes, I know how ridiculous this sounds, me playing the “point game.” I almost wanted to make it so that there was no external reward, but our kids are so busy with so many things that I know even a little incentive will go a long way. I’ve been at my school long enough, and know our kids well enough, to know this is doomed to failure without a little external reward.

Explore Math (Reprise)

At the beginning of the 3rd quarter, I did an experiment in my Advanced Precalculus classroom: Explore Math. This post is the compilation of the survey results from my kids on this experiment. So if you don’t know what the activity was, read up here, and then see what this survey is all about. I will share examples of some of student work for this experiment later. Part of the assignment for students included submitting one exploration to our school’s math-science journal, Intersections. When this year’s issue of the journal comes out, I hope to link to my kids’s explorations!

The question in the survey:

The “Explore Math” project is something I’ve never done before. I explained my reasoning behind it — which is I wanted to encourage you to see that there is so much more than our curriculum covers, and let you just have fun looking at math stuff outside of our curriculum… and get some easy credit for it (almost everyone is getting full credit for the first batch of things I’ve seen). However, as a teacher, I know something like this could easily be seen as busy work, and that was my big concern — that it would feel like a chore rather than something you actually want to do.

This is me laying my cards on the table. If I came to you in the student center and told you this and asked you for your thoughts, what would you say?

Every Student Response In Entirety:

I really liked the Explore Math project and I definitely would say it was an overall success. I loved how many options we were given for what we could do, and the fact that you gave us the options was great because otherwise it can feel like you are just trying to desperately research and find a topic to write about. My Explore Math topics I thought were extremely interesting, and it was cool to even connect some to the stuff we were learning in class. It was a lot of writing, which is something foreign for math classes, and also made it kind of difficult to grasp exactly how to format what we were writing (five page essays for each topic?). One other thing that was a little stress-inducing was the deadline and I know it was for a problem for most people that it often happens that when there are multiple assignments due on one day, students leave them all and do them in bulk. Because of this, having the deadline of the first three due in February was definitely helpful. Overall, I really loved the assignment.

I really liked this project! I found a lot of things about math that I would have never known about if we weren’t assigned this project. I learned new formulas, new (very addictive games), great youtube channels and informative popular articles. I found an entirely new community online that I did not know existed.

At first I expected it to feel like a bit of a chore but when I actually sat down and did it, it was pretty fun. I think it was great that there were multiple ways you were allowed to “explore math.” I also thought it was amazing I could play around with the project a little bit to find areas of math that are aligned with my personal interests. Being able to think about how math affects our society, in a math class, was an amazing interdisciplinary activity. I think it’s good that not every option was a math puzzle — that would have felt constrictive.

I would say as long as the students are innovative, interested and patient people the project sounds wonderful. The student, if very interest in math, should be encouraged to further their mathematical understanding, and find means in which math is even more interesting to them as it was prior. Emphasizing the point that one (the student) does not need to seek the more difficult problem or most tedious theorem is also very helpful, as the student will be encouraged to explore areas of math in which really interests them.

I would say that I absolutely love the explore math project. I have always been a person who enjoyed math that connected with the world. Being in a classroom memorizing formulas was never my interest and I was psyched when you announced the project. I think that this project can be very helpful in putting math on the global scale for students who only see it as a class in a school. This opens their eyes to new heights math can taken and how much math actually helps outside of the classroom.

I agree it felt like busy work some. I find it weird that something that’s supposed to be us having fun exploring math had a grade and time constraint attached to it. That’s one thing I didn’t like.

All I have to say is that this was not busy work; in fact it was productive and learning work. I found this to be incredibly intensive and interesting, and it broadened my horizons of the understandings of applied mathematics and sciences, and introduced me to things that I had previously trembled [at] before, like string theory, for instance. I thought this was a great project and a simple and easy way to get us thinking in a mathematical mindset, and I am definitely reaping the benefits from it, because I have come away with much more knowledge about certain aspects of math that I had previously not known. I really wouldn’t know what to change because I liked these individual explorations so much and they intrigued me so much. Thank you for giving a projected that I was thoroughly interested in, seriously!

 For someone who is very interested in math in and out of the classroom, I am generally engaged with math concepts that are not a part of our curriculum. Thus, this was a good experience for me in that I was able to get credit for simply enjoying and exploring math; it also perhaps pushed me a little bit to go further than I normally would in exploring mathematical concepts online. However, for students who don’t love math outside of the classroom, I could definitely see how this might have seemed like busy-work. If you don’t genuinely enjoy math, then writing a lot about it and research about it is going to be cumbersome, but if you do, it’s enjoyable.

I really liked doing the explore math assignment. I liked that you were giving us an outlet for us to not just do the math that needs to be done in order to complete the class. This assignment allowed me, personally, to dive deeper into how math can be applied to the world and that math is actually occurring all the time. Also, I remember not really understand[ing] infinite series and then I did an explore math with infinite series that really helped me because it was a visual representation that really clicked with me.

I think that initially I thought the project might just be busy work and I didn’t really understand what we were expected to be doing. Once I read over the assignment and saw the scope of the projects we were allowed to do, I was much more interested and saw the project completely differently. I think that it is important to highlight, when giving the assignment, how broad a range of options you have when doing this, and that there are so many math projects that relate to everyday life that could be interesting if you just think about it, rather than relying on the assignment sheet completely to guide you.

Personally, I have enjoyed what I have done so far. Just recently, I voiced my concerns about the state of math in America and was able to comprehensive research about the bitcoin that I would not have done on my own. That being said, some of this has seemed like busy work and stuff “I just have to do for credit.” Since it seems like you genuinely want us to enjoy the project, it might be made better by making it extra credit. That way, we could be able to explore as much as we want without worrying about our grade.

I had a really awesome time doing my Explore Math assignments, but the one thing you could do to make it less busy work is make it 3 different assignments, rather than 5, and make them a little more in depth, and more interesting in that regard. I think that if the students only had to do 3, they could expand more on what they were interested in.

I really like the idea, but for me personally, it turned into busy work. Not because I find it boring but because I have so much other work that it gets pushed back towards the end of my load. I would like to spend more time on them, so possibly have it on top of the nightly work for math, designate a night specifically to explore math.

This is practically the farthest thing from busywork we can do! Repetitive problems often seem like busywork. Practice is always good, but once you have something down, it can be quite annoying to practice it over and over again. Sometimes i feel that way about homework, but with this project we’re choosing any math-y thing that interests us! We have a lot of freedom, and hopefully it piques an interest in math outside of the curriculum. This project is great, personally, I wish I had taken more time with it. As long as you don’t procrastinate too badly with it, I don’t see how this project could be a chore, unless you claim to hate math.

I LOVED this project, and I wish we got to do more things like this throughout the year. (I know we can do things like this whenever we want, but it’s really nice to get some recognition and the chance to formally share your math ideas with others.) As a side note, this project was also interesting to be doing while looking at colleges for the first time. I know that sounds like a really strange thing to say, but getting to enjoy math in new contexts, such as music theory, has given me new ideas of things I would like to pursue and take classes [on] while I am at college because we don’t always get to learn about things like this on a daily basis in high school.

I do admit that I wasn’t very enthusiastic at the start of the project, but as soon as I started I completely changed my mind. Most of the work that I did was stuff I had never done before and might never do again. I was genuinely interested in what I was doing, and it was great to be able to choose what I focused on instead of being told what to look at.

I understand why you assigned this project, and I think it is very important to see the relevance math has in the world. This breathes life into the abstract “why are we learning this” type that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with life outside the classroom. However the problems with this assignment are that I didn’t know what I was searching for. When I found the Sloane’s Gap video and paper I felt like I struck gold after seemingly endless mining. However the mining part is very un-exciting. Not un-exciting enough to undo the excitement of finding the cool stuff, but it’s not very encouraging either. I wouldn’t want this assignment to turn into a chose 5 of these pre-determined projects because that wouldn’t make anyone feel like anyone feel like they’re venturing outside the classroom. I’m not really sure what I would do to change this assignment, but I think it really is a good idea that with some refinement could become a really dynamic way to get into math. I think keeping it low pressure and “easy credit” is the way to go because stress + ambiguity about an assignment is a terrible combination that would only end in resentment from your students, and students not enjoying their work.

Honestly, I had quite a bit of fun with the “Explore Math” project as I saw many cool analogies of real-world applications of math. For example, one of my five “research topics” was the probability and randomly guessing on every SAT multiple choice question. I learned that the probability is horrifyingly low — I already knew this, but not to such an extent. Furthermore, I saw some very cool analogies in this SAT topic; for instance, if a computer were to take the SAT 1 million times a day, for five billion years, the chance of any of the SATs resulting in a perfect score on just the math section would be about 0.0001%. Crazy, I know!