Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer Plans - Curriculum Remix

While this new blogging/twittering (tweeting?) thing has been wonderful, it has also made me overwhelmed with thoughts about what I want to change in my curriculum for next year. I've been working in a bunch of different directions for a few years (some quite contradictory), but I'm hoping to pull a lot of things together this summer and not feel like I'm tinkering at the edges. One of my sad realizations this year when we were moving offices and I cleaned out a giant box of crap I had lugged from my first school where I spent my first year teaching was all of the insane, cool, cutting edge stuff that I was doing then because I had no fear and didn't know any better and was doing the teaching thing completely solo and rudderless. The part that made me sad lay in realizing how much of that stuff has gone away since I've been at my current school and have become normal, established, and, gasp, respectable. In reality, a lot of that stuff did need to go away. I was giving kids really hard problems and open investigations with no scaffolding and support. I jumped from project to project with no follow through or continuity, which just created confusion. Everything was also handwritten and xeroxed (clearly, I hate trees). Not to mention the fact that my classroom management was just so ridiculous that first year that none of my grand curricular plans even had a chance. Since taking a curricular leap backward these past few years, I've been able to get so much better at organizing the day-to-day running of a class and my ability to interact with and lead students, which I know is really important for my development as a teacher. But I'm really ready to bring some of that crazy self back and inject some pow! back into my teaching.

To that end, I've been gathering resources and thinking how I want to restructure the various Algebra courses that I teach. Some things that I'm finding helpful are:
Mainly, I want to change from feeling like I'm teaching a traditional curriculum with interesting problems thrown in every once in a while to a legit constructivist approach. But I still want it to feel cohesive and be rigorous. And I want the students to be on board, which means that I have to meet them where they are when they arrive in my classroom and get them to follow me somewhere different. So this will have to be much, much slower than that erratic first year and more intentional too. My plan right now is to start with the big ideas/concepts from each chapter in the book (not ready to ditch the textbook quite yet), and decide on the best sequence (I'm fine with "going out of order") and problem-based entry point for each concept. I need to decide on how many days for exploring and problem-solving and how much procedural practice I still want to include. Another change that I want to make is to tie journaling more directly to our classwork and problem solving, rather than an add-on "reflection" that students do before a quiz or to wrap up the chapter. I am also thinking of diversifying assessments to include more writing and problem solving, which is mainly just a brain switch for me to stop thinking of tests and quizzes as the "real" assessments of what students know and of projects as the intermediate step where they're still learning and making connections.

The nice thing about doing things "normally" at my current school is that I have some cred with students and the department so that they will give me leeway to try things without assuming I have no idea what I'm doing. It also means that I don't have to think as hard about procedural/classroom management/dealing with teenagers stuff because it sort of starts to make sense after all these years (which is its own brand of crazy). I can just focus on my curriculum. So it's on!

 I would love to hear from others about how you've made your class more progressive or get recommendations for more curricular resources. As I start the actual reworking, I'll be posting ideas for problems and journal prompts for feedback too.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bootstrap Programming Project

I wanted to reflect on a project that I did with my 8th grade Algebra students (the non-accelerated group) this year. Usually, the end of the year is filled with review and studying for the final exam, but this year, I decided to give the final before the 8th grade trip, which left 4 weeks at the end of the year for......? Exactly, I had no idea what I was going to do with that time, but even though I've never taught this particular class before, I had taught 8th graders before and remembered their "senioritis" and difficulty with doing any work after a week-long fun trip away from school with all of their friends. Sooo, my big question was, what activities/projects are a suitable and engaging way to celebrate and culminate the end of a 2-year Algebra course? By chance, I heard about a workshop being sponsored by Google about a programming curriculum that was very connected to Algebra, and I decided to attend. The curriculum (called Bootstrap) is completely open - all student and teacher materials are available online, and workshops are free for teachers. It basically walks students through the creation of a functioning video game using a language (WeScheme) that is much more mathematical than other languages and is very user friendly.

The creator of the curriculum is Emmanuel Schanzer, a Math teacher (who was a programmer before that) who is now working on his M.Ed. at Harvard. I did the programming project for 15 consecutive 45-minute class periods (with no HW assignments), which was quite a few less than Emmanuel recommended, but seemed to work fine for my students (a few complained that it was a bit too rushed, but others complained that it went too slowly, which probably means that it was okay). I didn't have a chance to do any of the extension activities, although a class that got ahead of the others did some design explorations, which was great fun. In reflecting on this project, I'm going to organize my thoughts into pros and cons.


  • Students really enjoyed it. It was one of the most mentioned activities in the end-of-year feedback form when asked about their favorite thing we did in class this year. And having our last day of class dedicated to student presentations was such a nice closing note.
  • Concrete, fun end result (a working video game) that students could share with each other
  • Student choice in the images and "storyline" for their game; they did feel like the game was theirs
  • Seeing algebraic concepts (definition of function, domain, range, composition of functions, writing function rules, distance formula) in action, as well as previewing some geometric concepts that students will encounter next year
  • All materials already exist and are broken down into lesson chunks. All I had to do was work through the directions to make sure that I knew how to code each part and decide on my tweaks (which parts to work through as a class, which parts students could do in pairs/groups, how many examples, etc).
  • Emmanuel is super helpful - he answered emails within a few minutes and even called me up so that he could walk me through a part that I couldn't figure out on my own.
  • Allows students to see a real hands-on side of mathematics, not something "real-world" that's been created in order to justify using math
  • Fun for me! I haven't done any programming since college, so it was nice for me to stretch a bit and be frustrated/stumped in a different way, as well as lots of opportunity to be amazed by students' thinking because it was basically new to me.
  • Allows different kids to shine than those who traditionally excel in formal math. I loved seeing kids who barely spoke (or passed a test) all year take dominant roles in the class and be respected as experts.
  • It's kind of awesome (and really, really bizarre) not to assign homework for such a long stretch. Students were really appreciative given the high loads they seemed to be getting in all of their other classes at the time. The deal I made with them is that in return, they had to be productive in class, and this worked fairly well.
  • A lot of the code is already preset (which direction different components can move, structure of the game) so the kids in actuality are just tinkering at the edges. I felt like my students would have benefited from more challenge and opportunities to make the game more complex. It also means the end products are really, really similar.
  • All materials already exist and are broken down into lesson chunks. I generally itch at constraints like this... I like to own a curriculum because I made most of it up or twisted it so much from the original version that it hardly resembles it. This felt a little prefabricated and "nice" for my taste.
  • The way that the lessons are written is very heavy on teacher-direct instruction, which isn't really my style. I amended some parts to include more pair/group work, but it was hard for me to deviate too much since I don't know enough about programming to really set them/myself loose. It also means everyone is expected to move at the same pace, which is basically unreasonable. It meant that there were days where kids with a more intuitive understanding of coding sat around bored for half the class and other days where kids who were struggling felt lost because we just needed to move on.
  • I needed to reserve laptop carts every day for 4 weeks straight. The IS department at school was not pleased, and it put a strain on other teachers' ability to use laptops at that time.
So overall, the project was definitely a success, and I hope that with more experience, I can address some of my cons next year. For example, I will communicate with Emmanuel to find out if there are ways to change the preset backbone code in order to allow for more complex variations of the game. I will also work this summer to revise the lesson outlines and make them more student-directed and find more opportunities for student exploration (there are extension activities on the Bootstrap website that I haven't looked at in great detail yet, but which may be promising). If you are interested in using Bootstrap in your class, they seem to be running workshops all the time, and it's a nice chunk of a curriculum that can fit with almost any level of math experience of middle and high school students. They also have a Facebook page and Google group, which has an updated list of upcoming workshops. And write me a note if you have any questions or comments about my experiences with it this year.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Assessing projects

Now that the last day of school is here, it's finally time for me to grade students' final projects, and I'm realizing that this is really hard for me. For Algebra 1, students had quite a few options to choose from, of varying difficulty and mathematical content.

Some students worked on the same project for a week, while others worked on two or three during that time. Some created a product (video, book, poster), while others explained their process verbally to the class and/or annotated their work on paper.

I feel that this year more than in the past, students engaged fully with their projects, worked productively, and accomplished something meaningful in the last week of school, but I have no idea how to fairly grade this work. Should a weaker student who picked a project that was challenging for them and put a lot of effort into it be graded lower than a stronger student who completed a more challenging project with perhaps less effort? What about a kid who tends to be easily frustrated, but worked through his sticking points and got himself through areas of frustration? I'm not even sure that I can quantify their effort... some students chose to do extra work outside of class (this was discouraged, but not banned), while others didn't. Some volunteered their time to help their peers while others preferred to work alone. How can I tell how hard a student is actually working? And should it matter in assessing a project or do I grade on mathematical content alone? I do have a rubric (attached to an earlier post), so that will help somewhat, but I'm still mulling over if each category should be referenced to some norm (what I think an Algebra 1 student should be doing) or compared to that particular student's previous progress and how much they learned doing this project. I would love to hear from others who have thoughts on how to assess projects.

P.S. All of the photos are so boy-heavy because this class literally has 3 girls in it. Did I mention that it's also the last class of the day? Sigh.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Student feedback

Going through 8th graders' feedback from an anonymous Google form that I had them fill out last Friday is kind of amazing. It's funny to me how few of the comments have anything to do with Math, and everything to do with our personal connection or the community they felt in our classroom. I was also reminded that what they most remember from the course are the hands-on activities, projects, and lab experiments. Far and away, their favorite activity this year was the programming project (using the Bootstrap curriculum, I blogged about it here). But they really did take in a lot more stuff than they appeared to at the time. This is my first year in a long while teaching the "regularly paced" group (we have "accelerated" and "regularly paced" for all Math classes starting in 7th grade), and I am actually quite impressed with the maturity and attitude toward learning. We get bogged down in the day-to-day and forget how much growth these kids are making in a given school year and that they give as much back to us as we give to them.

Some of my favorite quotes:

"You were very open to questions and were wise with your responses not to give away the answer." Seriously impressed by this kid's maturity.
"i learned alot this year but I don't remember that much of it."  This is more like what I'd expect from an 8th grader :)
"Algebra is something that I can actually see using in real life situations." I love that someone is taking this away from my class
"Even when mistakes were made, you still respected me and never held it over my head." Okay, this one just made me aww. We should pat our own backs every once in a while.
"I agreed with all the grades I got. Though I still honestly don't understand why i need to label my axes." I'll let next year's Math teacher continue fighting that good fight.
"I enjoyed taking the final test." I really want to know who this kid is! This is what he/she listed as their favorite part of my class!! <mind blown>

Some recommendations for next year:

"let the students give more feedback" Yes, I do need to incorporate this more into daily classroom routines. I'm curious to hear how others incorporate student feedback into their classes.
"Do more projects." Totally agree... will be working on developing more this summer.
"On ocassion play a game that has nothing to do with math to change things up." Probably more games in general would be a good thing. I would love input on this one too.

I also thought about soliciting feedback from parents, but didn't organize myself enough to do it this year. I thought that I would ask just a few questions (Did you feel that there was enough communication from me? How could I have better supported your child? Any other suggestions for improvement?) and email it out via a class mailing list. Any feedback about parent questionnaires would be appreciated!!