It’s now more than halfway through the first quarter, and things are … messy.
I’m pretty much going through Calculus like I did last year, except for the fact that everything is so much easier because I have standards based grading down.  I know what works. While Calculus was hell for me first quarter last year, it’s cake for me now. So calculus is not messy. 
So while Calculus is going smoothly, I’m finding Algebra II to be messy. Not in terms of my kids. I love my Algebra II classes. But like last year — when I vowed to really focus on Calculus and leave my other courses well-enough alone — this year I vowed to focus on Algebra II and leave my other courses alone.
Specifically, I’m working on two major things: making groups and groupwork a norm, and having problem solving be a regular (and non-special) part of the curriculum. (As you can guess, the two go hand-in-hand.)
I haven’t written much about my inclusion of problem solving into the curriculum, but right now we’re doing a day of problem solving before each unit (related to the unit), I have slowly started including problem-solving problems in our home enjoyment (our supremely corny term for homework), I have been putting simple problem-solving problems on each assessment, and we so far have had a single problem set (something which I may or may not continue with). Still, I should be clear that most of my curriculum and my classes are traditional.
Now, if you’re a teacher who teaches more traditionally and uses a standard curriculum, you know that this a huge change. Because there’s a huge activation energy involved in switching teaching modes. For me, I kept on saying “next year, next year” and I never did. It’s daunting! And why screw around with something that works well?
And if you’re a teacher who teaches with lots of groupwork, and uses problem solving regularly, you probably remember the year you went through the transition. And how it got easier each subsequent year, as you picked up more tricks of the trade. Tacit knowledge.
And if you’re not a teacher, what the heck are you doing reading this blog? Seriously?!? GET OUTTA HERE!
Switching to this mode has played havoc with my emotions. You see, it’s not healthy and I try to avoid it, but my self-worth is tied up with how well I think I’m doing in the classroom. When I feel like I’m doing things well, I walk around like I own the world. I have confidence. My head is held high. And when I feel like I’m doing a poor job, my head hangs low. I question my desire to teach. I wonder what I’m doing in the classroom. And I’m depressed.
This year, I’m playing emotional ping-pong.
There are times when I feel like I’m killing it in Algebra II. These are usually days before each unit, where we spend the entire period working in groups and problem solving. I love watching kids think and discuss, and they’ve gotten how to work well in groups down. I’ve never had it work so seemlessly. It’s amazing. They’re independent. They’re identifying their own misconceptions and fixing them. I leave these classes wondering why it took me so long as a teacher to get to this point… I feel like my kids are finally and truly grappling, and I love that. (And I’m starting to do this successfully when we’re not problem solving… I made an “exponent lab” which was just 20 “simplify this” problems… and I was seeing great things when they worked together.)
And then there are times when I feel like I’m being killed. I have classes where I want to crawl under my desk and hide. Some of these classes happen the day after kids problem solve, and they present their solutions. Kids put their work on the board, or under the document projector, and present. Or if we don’t have time, I’ll have them put their work up, and I’ll talk through it. These classes have never worked for me. It’s like pulling teeth. Kids don’t know how to present. They don’t know how to engage if they’re in the audience. It takes forever. I don’t think anyone is getting much out of these days.  Or there are the more frequent regular classes (where we’re not doing problem solving), and I find I’m standing at the front of the classroom the entire class, cold calling and explaining. And it’s ugh. I feel ugh. There’s no spontaneity. It’s not fun. I don’t mix things up or have different ways of introducing/practicing material to break up class.
What’s interesting is that I feel my kids think that I’m doing a crappy job. I know they — in actuality — don’t think our classtime sucks. (I had my kids anonymously answer some questions, including the what two or three adjectives would you use to describe our classtime question.)
But even though intellectually I know that my kids don’t think I’m doing a crappy job teaching, it doesn’t change the fact that I feel they think I’m doing a crappy job teaching. It’s a slight distinction, but maybe others of you out there know what I’m talking about.
So as I said changing things is messy. Because you don’t know what works yet, and what doesn’t. It’s taking a risk. It requires more work. And you feel like you’re constantly flailing and failing. And that’s not a good feeling. Here’s a recent Facebook “convo”:
I know this is sort of rambling. I’m just trying to work through some things, but I still don’t know where things are going. Which is why there isn’t a real point to this. Just a state of affairs, from an emotional vantage point. I’m not looking for sympathy or advice. I just wanted to try to get my thoughts down — and just let you know that if you’re going through a similar transition, you’re not alone.
 I have a list of standards I can choose from, I have good exemplars of problems for each standard, I learned how to effectively introduce it, and I know how to set it up so I don’t die with all the extra work that comes along with reassessments.
 But yes, there are lots of things I could do to improve it. Always, always…
 I’ve talked with a teacher who does a lot of group work and presentations, and she gave me some excellent suggestions (revolving around using giant whiteboard) which I’m going to take on board.