Saturday, September 29, 2012

#msSunFun - Favorite Ways to Practice

Go here to submit yours

This week, we're blogging about ways to get kids to do practice in our classrooms. To be honest, this is so not one of my strengths. I am pretty terrible at coming up with creative ways to hide the fact that they just need to do a bunch of problems right now. I would much rather plan a discovery activity or an application lab, so I tend to treat practice with some annoyance, even though I know it's important. Here are a few classroom structures that I've liked for making practice a bit less dull:
  • Speed dating from @k8nowak (students rotate through, pairing up with a different partner each time)
  • Matching puzzles from @sqrt_1 (answers to problems are along the edge so students match up a piece with a problem to a piece with an answer)
  • Solve Crumple Toss from @k8nowak again (students complete a problem, bring it up to you to check, and if correct, student crumples the sheet and tries to make a basket using the recycling bin or garbage can for points)
My own, much, much less creative go-to structure for practicing problems is the following:

Teacher puts up a problem. Everyone works on it - students may work with anyone else in the room that they want to until everyone is done. A random student is chosen who puts their work under the document camera and explains what they did. If they are correct, the class gets a point. For every one/two/three (depends on how generous I'm feeling) points the class earns, a homework problem is removed from that night's assignment. 

When presenting this activity, I make it very clear that if a student has the wrong solution, it's an issue for the class, not for that student - the class wins or loses as a group. Therefore, everyone has the responsibility of making sure they check what they have with others and get help if they are confused and everyone has the responsibility of checking in with others to make sure that no one is sitting alone and confused. Kids seem to take the idea of group responsibility very seriously when we do this. Maybe it's a middle school thing, but kids are running around the class, talking with each other, arguing about whether their answer is correct or not, and reaching out to kids they see sitting by themselves. The group responsibility piece also makes kids that would rather just sit on the sidelines or be quietly confused work harder and engage more fully since they don't want to let their peers down. When I first tried this, I worried that kids would feel the pressure in a bad way, but instead, it seems to result in an increase in support and encouragement, which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

And that's exactly what math class should feel like.

Monday, September 24, 2012

My Favorite Friday - Hackpad to organize meetings & discussions

Submit yours here

This is my first time doing one of these, but I wanted to share a site that I've been using to help organize meetings and discussion groups at school. The site is, and it's basically a wiki (or document that is editable by multiple people), but with some nice, extra features that make it super useful for organization. To use the site, you can either create an account or use an existing Google or Facebook account. The benefit of using one of those (I prefer using a Google account) is that you will stay logged in to Hackpad for as long as you're logged in to the other account. And if there's one thing that I hate the most in the world, it's logging into accounts. 

Uhhh... my password?????

So once you're in, you can start making "pads," which are basically blank documents that you can share with other people. The awesomestestest thing about Hackpad is that once the people you're sharing them with make accounts, their name automatically appears next to whatever text they've entered. Here's a screen grab from a pad I'm using in a professional development group on young adult literature:

A few things to note:
  • There are several different privacy levels, from public to those with link only, to those on a pre-approved list only. The default setting is private (only you can see it).
  • Bolding an entire line of text automatically makes it an entry in a table of contents, which is super useful for organizing long pads. (See the table of contents on the right-hand side above)
  • It's super easy to embed links, images, tables, and videos - the site recognizes the format and everything is embedded in a single document.
  • You can create to-do lists with check-boxes.
  • When changes to the pad are made, all of the people signed-up for that pad get an email with what the changes are. They can edit by going directly to the pad or by replying to the email.
  • You can group pads into collections (basically, like folders - the pad above is in my "School stuff" collection).
  • You can call up specific people using the @ symbol - if they have an account, their name will pop up from a drop-down menu and they will get a notification email that says they were called up in a pad (basically like tagging in Facebook or Twitter). This is super useful if you have a question or comment for a specific person and want to make sure they see it.
  • People can edit at the same time and the changes are recorded in real time. There is no need to save - it is all automatic.
  • You can link to other pads so one can be one initial pad and when it gets too big, you can cut chunks off and make them into individual pads that can still be navigated to from the main one.
  • You can view the document as a cohesive whole or as a series of changes, ordered from most recent to least recent. This can be helpful if you just want to see what's been changed.

Yes, there are some similarities to google docs in that pads are shared and editable by many people. The main benefits that I see with Hackpad are:
  • You don't need a Google account so this can be used with lots of different groups of people with varying levels of tech-savviness. People can access it using whatever means is easiest for them (Google account, Facebook account, or with an email address & password).
  • The name of the writer is automatically shown next to the text they added so it's super easy to see who is saying what in a discussion so no more typing in third person, or trying to figure out who "I" is in a document.
  • You can "tag" (or call up) specific people.
  • Ability to view recent changes.

Some drawbacks that I've found are that if you have a lot of pads (which I do), you can get inundated with emails for updates being made to each one (to fix this, you can set a specific pad to not get notification emails) and the site does not play well with Android mobile devices. I'm hoping that they will come out with an Android app sooner rather than later, since that would make it way more convenient for me to use on the go.

I wrote a blog post for them recently specifically about how I use Hackpad in an education setting:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reality vs. Ideal Classroom

This has been a challenging year so far. Exhibit A: I have not been on Twitter much since school started almost 2 weeks ago. Exhibit B: I have not blogged in almost 4 weeks. Exhibit C: I haven't responded to any comments made on my blog from the past 3 weeks. Apologies, all around. And I promise to get to those comments really soon.

What I'm struggling with the most this year is that my expectations and goals are much higher than they have been since my first few years of teaching and they're running head first into the reality of school life. I blogged about some of my big plans here, here, and here. The basic gist is that I wanted my students to process at a deeper level this year, involving more writing and more problem solving, and I reworked some of the curriculum to reflect these changes. The issue that I'm having is that these goals are very difficult to achieve in the constraints of the current system. One of my courses is an accelerated Algebra 1 class taught to 7th graders, who I see for 45 minutes, 4 times each week (which doesn't include time lost due to conferences, field trips, assemblies, etc). Although I am not "teaching to the test," per se, my students do need to be able to do well in their following (accelerated) math classes and gain a reasonably strong foundation in Algebra 1 content, as well as study skills, organization, and ability to show work clearly and using standard notation. And I cannot seem to find the time to both teach a high level of content understanding and skill development while incorporating actual problem solving, writing, discussion, group work, labs, and all of the other components that I think are crucial to a rich, exciting middle school math class. 45 minutes is just not enough time to go over homework, use a problem-solving or groupwork based approach to teaching a concept, and assess students' understanding of said concept before I assign problems to be completed independently at home. Every day, I am rushing through things that just need more time to stew and develop in students' minds, telling them the conclusion because class actually ended 2 minutes ago, and they need to be able to do their assigned homework for the night, and I can't possibly write them all a late pass yet again, just because I desperately want more time for them to discover the conclusion themselves and own it on their own terms.

what I feel like this year

I know one possible solution: cut stuff out of the curriculum. Are rational functions and equations really that important for Algebra 1 students to master? What other content is really Algebra 2 material that's been pushed down into Algebra 1? What things do you cut or wish you could cut? Any other suggestions out there? (I've already petitioned for a change in the schedule that would allow for more time for math, and have been told "soon" for about 8 years.)