I started this post a long time ago (maybe two or three months ago), but scrapped it. But I’ve decided to finish it up and make a little plea for advice at the end.
What do you do when you ask a question and get a totally wrong answer? Okay, this question screams newbie, but it happens to me enough and I often get caught in an awkward situation. Let me explain.
A completely made-up but not unrealisitic example:
Me: So we now we have this: . Where do you think we go from here? What are we trying to do again? StudentX?
[Context: We’ve learned how to graph quadratics, use the quadratic formula, complete the square, factor, and seen equations like this all year. It should be second nature to them. And for many it is, but for some it isn’t. The problem is this: we’re way beyond this. We’re working on some other concept, and these gaps force me to veer away from the current lesson and take a bunch of steps back to reteach these things to the few that don’t get it…]
StudentX: Um… well, we could add 2x to both sides…
Me: [awkward silence while I think of what to say, because I don’t want to do that…]
Me: At every step, we want to ask ourselves: (1) why do we do that? and (2) what are we trying to find out? So why would we add 2x to both sides? What are we trying to do?
[Context: Even when they are on the right track, I will ask this question. I want them to think about every move they make.]
StudentX: I don’t know.
At this point, I’ll ask what type of equation we have, and what we know about it. StudentX will finally get it (“quadratic!”), and we’ll move on.
Sometimes I don’t make it a drawn out process. If I’m in a rush, I will ask if someone else has a different idea and call on someone who I know will have the right answer, and then move from there. And then I’ll return briefly to the original idea and explain why it won’t get us to where we want to be.
But this interaction takes 3-5 minutes, I know 80% of the students in the class are bored, some are trying to whisper the answer to the student, and we get held up.
Of course, I’m all about meeting students where they’re at. And I’m happy to review. But these moments happen all too often, and using every one of them as a teachable moment takes too much time and would be bad practice. I have a curriculum to cover. Taking three steps back constantly is tough.
That tension, between moving forward in the curriculum and making sure students are up to speed on the older stuff, is palpable.
I often feel like I sacrifice the majority of the class when I do too many of these types of things. I don’t want to praise a wrong answer (“That’s a great idea, but I’m not sure it’ll help”), I don’t want to scare a student from speaking in class (“No”), I don’t want to spend a lot of time on a basic skill that the rest of the class knows, I don’t want to make the student feel dumb or ignored (“Anyone else have a different idea?”).
I’m afraid I’ve done all three.
To make this into a truly teachable moment would require me to add 2x to both sides, and then stick with the student and ask them what next. And just stick with them until they see that they’re stuck. But I tend to only go down really wrong paths in math when we’re learning something new and we have the time to have these dead end explorations.
Basically, when it comes down to it, I recognize that I still don’t know how to organize and manage a differentiated classroom well, how to scaffold lessons, how to keep everyone engaged and learning, while still moving forward in a fast-paced curriculum. It’s not that I don’t try. About 30% of my students have some learning difference or another, and I do think about that when I’m designing my lessons. I do. But what I’m doing isn’t working. At least not as well as I’d like.
I think that in addition to classroom management, this is one of those big topics that doesn’t often get explicitly addressed in teacher blogs. Maybe that’s because a good many teachers do it without thinking about it – it’s natural. But even though I do a lot of things naturally well, planning a scaffolded lesson for a pretty differentiated class isn’t one of my fortes. Yet.
So anyway, if you know of any blog posts or websites, or have any advice, holla out in the comments.
Yeah, I know, I know. Everything about this screams “Newbie.”
 One of my fears is that I’m going too slow for a bunch of my kids, and I’m not sure where my focus should go. The middle of the road? Those that don’t get it? Those that do? For me, I think a complicating factor is that I was always one of those kids who did get it, and really quickly. I identify with them. I don’t want those kids to be bored. And I feel guilty because I am pretty sure they are bored.
 Five or so years ago, I read about differentiated classrooms in one of my teaching classes, but the readings were all academic mumbo jumbo with no connection to reality. I’m looking for something useful.