Thursday, August 29, 2013

Crashing in the Classroom

I've been wanting to write for a few days.  I haven't quite gotten the hang of the idea of bringing my failures to paper and working through them.  But I've been struggling for several days and need to find a way to gain some clarity to my thoughts.

I'm having difficulty with the Conceptual Math class I described a bit before, and it's affecting my teacher mojo greatly.  With my year of sojourn in the world of English, it's been a while since I've had the opportunity to really sink my teeth into the craft of teaching.  I love the process of developing a curriculum map, creating assessments, researching and finetuning lessons.  That is my passion.  I feel more alive doing that than I do...well...teaching.


And that's where I've hit my wall this week.  Because when the rubber hits the road, I fall flat.  And I kept looking at pics of my TMC friends on my bookshelves to inspire me.

And it was equal parts inspiring and discouraging.  Because the people in those pictures...they can teach.  I mean, like really teach!  And I'm hitting brick walls all over the place right now.  Even though I feel like I'm doing everything the "right way" to try to set the class up for success.

I am perhaps being a bit too hard on myself.  But the moment that my ideals and the reality in my classroom come face to face, I meet with frustration.  I constantly overestimate their background knowledge.  Even when I'm aiming at a point that I think is so far below where they will be comfortable.


Our first unit in the Curriculum Map we put together is our Math and Finances unit.  The state standards we are aiming to cover are:

describe and illustrate how calculating costs, simple and compound interest, finance charge, loan payment and tax functions are used to solve real-world problems.
identify a real life situation that involves investing money over time; pose a question; make a hypothesis as to the answer; develop, justify, and implement a method to collect, organize, and analyze related data; generalize the results to make a conclusion; compare the hypothesis and the conclusion; present the project numerically, analytically, graphically and verbally using words, graphs, models, or tables (with and without technology).

In addition, we are aiming to thread these problem solving standards through all of our units of study:
use a variety of problem solving strategies (e.g., draw a diagram, look for a pattern, work backwards) to solve real-world problems.
choose the appropriate formulas to solve workplace problems and judge the reasonableness of the solutions.
integrate other disciplines into the study of mathematics through simulations, research,
 and projects.

(Forgive the formatting issues).  Have I mentioned, by the way, that I love the standards for this course?!?  The nature of the class is such that the students who choose it are students who have historically struggled with math and/or are not highly motivated.  Prior to adopting the Common Core, this class came after Geometry in our sequence for those who wished to forego or postpone Algebra 2d.

In any case, we thought that starting with the finance unit might give them a more immediate buy-in since they can see the relevance of this sort of mathematics to their lives.  But my collaborating partner and I knew we were going to be asking them to do a lot of group work this year, and we wanted to set a strong foundation for that.  Plus, a huge change in our school schedule this year meant that there complete havoc to our class lists in the opening week so heavy instruction was likely to prove counterproductive.

So, our first week went something like this:
Monday - Welcome. Introductions.  Review of class policies.
Tuesday - Placed in random groups.  The Marshmallow Challenge.
Wednesday - A recap of the Marshmallow Challenge followed by group discussions on norm setting.
Thursday - Revisit group norm discussion and develop classroom norms.  New groups.  A Building Blocks Challenge.  So far, so good.  And I was feeling quite confident.  Each day the cohesion in groups was increasing.  The participation getting stronger.  The observations about group dynamics my collaborating teacher and I were able to bring to their attention were solid and moving in a positive direction.  We seemed to have them.  Or so we thought...  Then came Friday.

Friday - We attempted to apply what we had decided about group norms to a math task.  And it all started to fall apart.  We gave them the Garden Problem.

We delivered the introduction of the problem a bit better in each class as we started to see they needed a slight bit of scaffolding.  I guess it should've been a huge tip-off when the opening bellringer questions involving calculating area and perimeter of rectangles let us know what kind of gaps we were dealing with.  But we discussed the opener and proceeded to scaffold the class as best we could.

The problem took up all of Friday and Monday.  For two of the three classes, it even dipped over into the start of Tuesday.  They struggled immensely with explaining their own thinking or using picture strategies to approach it.  We had to hint and prompt them all along the way.  Even then, only about one person in each group was engaged with the task.  I still think that after three days, they didn't totally understand what we had explored.


It went down hill from there...

The plan was to have them tackle Glenn's Cell Phone problem next.  After all, it had been a "blazing success" on his first day.  We knew it didn't hit on tax functions or interest, but it was a chance for them to dip their toes into the finance side of things as a group on material we thought would be manageable for them.  After two full days, their posters had little more on them besides the name of the cell phone carrier they chose.  Their assumptions about how to do the calculations revealed serious problems with their understanding of...I don't even know...numbers...bills...the world around them.  We had to explain every little step to them.  To get them to create an expression/equation or make a table or graph was virtually impossible for two of the classes.  The third class could do so if we hinted them through the entire process.  Even though the daily openers had similar problems that we looked at as a group...I even showed them a comparison of two different cell phone plans as a table and a Desmos graph and hinted that such sort of mathematical displays were precisely what we were hoping to see on their posters.

By the time class started today, my partner felt that we were wasting our time staying any longer with the project and had each group present their basically empty posters so that we could move forward to the tax function direct instruction that was planned for the day.  The kids expressed frustration at not being allowed to finish their posters, and some even spoke to me after class about being mad about it.  But, I understood and didn't necessarily disagree with her desire to move forward because very little productive conversation was occurring in the groups...all of whom had one (if any) team member trying to figure out the task.

And suddenly, all of the good will we had built up feels lost.  The kids are frustrated and checking out and its week two.  And we are frustrated and at a loss.  This is a public blog so I don't want to describe specific interactions with students in much detail, but the sorts of mathematics that were confusing to them astounded me.  Then, I think about my Twitterverse colleagues who are doing algebra with their 6th grade students and I just want to cry.  What am I doing wrong?!?  Ugggh.  I seriously rethink my profession on a weekly basis sometimes.  Even though...I think I love what I do.

I'll tell you what I do love.  I spent the entire second day of the Cell Phone Project mentally retweaking the entire thing.  I wrote all kinds of post-it notes of how I would do it next year (if this class was still going to exist next year).  And I feel much more confident that my modified version of the task would would get us somewhere...and more kids would be engaged with the project.  But I also think I took away all of the open-ended challenge of the problem in doing so.

How do I scaffold and still keep things open, rigorous and challenging when many of my students are demonstrating a close to 7 year gap between their knowledge and what I'm supposed to be teaching?  And I'm a special education teacher. I should be able to handle this!  But it just makes me want to crawl back into the world of direct instruction where I can deliver the information and they can pretend to gobble it up.

By the way...I'm super excited about my modified Cell Phone Project.  Perhaps I should blog about that.  And then someone more talented than me can try to make it work with actual human students.



  1. Could you rework your modified cell phone task so it's different enough and have your current class have another try?
    So sorry for your pain! It must get better!

  2. That's a good suggestion, but since it doesn't really hit on the objectives we wanted to cover and was really just in our plans to help gently lead them into the finance is probably better to just apply the lessons learned into finetuning the next lesson.

    I find that any time I teach a new prep, I spend a ton of time writing post it notes on the lessons in my binder for subsequent years. By the time I'm ready to retire, I will rock at this. ;)

  3. Don't lose faith. It takes a while for students to realize that they DO know material and that they can do the tasks. The would not have gotten to 11th grade without seeing it, regardless of what they say. Keep your standards high, but provide them support. If you slow down, they will see you doing that and will slow down as well. Last year, I found myself at a dead stop twice because of it. When I picked up the pace again, moving on in spite of their objections, they kept up.

    Or they didn't.

    Either way, we moved. At some point, especially in high school, the responsibility of learning must be on them.

    Keep at it! They aren't used to projects or even meaningful tasks. They can be trained to love what you do.