Friday, December 21, 2007

Finding Resources at 40,000 Feet

There are many ways to keep yourself entertained on a long distance flight, and as this is the time of year that teachers are flying home to visit family, I thought I'd write about the least obvious one: the SkyMall catalog.

SkyMall, for the uninitiated, is a mail-order catalog with the most comprehensive collection of expensive, useless crap ever compiled. This is the kind of stuff you'd find in the Neimann Marcus holiday catalog, but it's published year-round and stuffed in the seat pockets of most U.S. airlines.

Despite the general silliness of the catalog, there are a few things that I thought would be excellent resources for the classroom (proving you can find inspiration anywhere):

  • The World's Largest Write-On Map Mural - If I still taught social studies, I would absolutely spring for this. It's about 9 feet high and 13 feet long, and can be written on with dry erase markers. Can you imagine having this cover a wall for you to reference instead of those traditional pulldown maps?
  • The World's Largest Crossword Puzzle - Along the same lines as the map, no matter the subject, I'd love to have this giant 7' by 7' crossword puzzle on the wall. Students could work on it throughout the year, building vocabulary and knowledge for a wide variety of topics. For $30, it seems like a bargain compared to the map above (about $130). At the very least, this item gets me thinking about making something similar myself with content area vocabulary. It would be a lot of work, but of course I wouldn't have to make something quite as big as this.
  • The Talking Educational Globe - This expensive but intriguing item would be great for your ELL students, struggling readers, or any students that would benefit from the interactivity.
  • Fuel Cell Car and Experiment Kit - There are similar kits out there for solar-powered vehicles, but this fuel cell-powered project would be an engaging way to talk about technology, energy, speed, acceleration, velocity and other related topics.
  • Light Effects Window Film - Those of you lucky (or unlucky, depending on your situation) enough to have a window in your classroom have probably thought about something like this already. These are self-clinging films that block views outside but allow in light, which should help avoid outdoor distractions.

That's about it, unless you think those ubiquitous motivational posters would be helpful in your classroom. Remember that you can buy almost all of these items elsewhere, for much cheaper prices than those advertised in SkyMall. Keep your eyes open to the possibilities out there, and please share what you find!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lesson Idea: Teach Slope by Building Stairs

Normally when I'm asked at a professional development workshop to "create a lesson" that reflects what I've learned, I groan. I've been jaded by years of bad professional development, that often follow the same painful formula.

This past Saturday's workshop on helping English Language Learners was different for two simple reasons. First, the presenters were dedicated, hardworking teachers that didn't want to waste our time in the usual manner. Secondly, the participants, especially the member of my department who were there, wanted to get something out of it. Thus when we sat down to devise an engaging lesson for all learners, fortune smiled upon us.

Earlier in the day, I had shared a mini-lesson on a particular math vocabulary word that students always seemed to have trouble spelling properly:
Me: "How would you say this word?"
[I write "rope" on the board.]
Students: "Rope!"
Me: "Good. What about this one?"
[I write "hope".]
Students: "Hope!"
Me: "Great! So how do you think you'd pronounce this word?"
[I write "slope".]
Students: "Slope!"
Me: "Excellent! Now what about this word?"
[I write "slop".]
Students: "Slop!"
Me: "Perfect. So when we are studying slope and writing about slope, I don't want to read anything on your papers about the slop of a line!"
The other teachers found this story hilarious, and now slop is everyone's favorite word. Inevitably our sample lesson focused on slope, which in all seriousness is one of the most difficult topics for our students to grasp. As we started to talk about various possibilities, I watched as my fellow math teacher was folding a paper accordion-style (presumably out of boredom). When she held it up, I saw stairs. More importantly, I saw a simple, hands-on way to demonstrate slope to our students.

Building Stairs

Objective: Students will be able to identify the slope of a line given two points; to create a line given slope; to identify positive, negative, zero and undefined slope visually.
Materials: Several sheets of lined paper for each student.
Vocabulary: slope, rise, run, steep

Opening: Start with a simple problem about slope that you've previously taught--for example, identifying positive, negative, zero or undefined slope visually.

Introduction: Provide some quick refresher notes on different ways to find slope. Collect pictures that show sharp edges that could help students visualize and conceptualize slope: ladders, mountains, the roof of a house, and most importantly, stairs.

Tell your students that they're going to make some stairs that have a specific slope. Talk about the stairs they walk up and down to get to class every day. Ask them what happens when one step isn't the same size as the rest (you trip, fall, break your neck and/or die). Ask how many of them have tripped and fell in this situation. Since my uncle owns the family stair building business, I would share a personal anecdote about that as well.

As suggested by my fellow teachers, we would show a model of completed stairs folded out of lined paper. The lines on the paper would serve as our unit of measurement, eliminating the need for rulers. 4 lines up and 6 lines across would be a slope of 4/6 or 2/3. The example would be labeled "rise" and "run" on each part of the steps. They could also be color coded.

Guided Practice: Have students create, in pairs or small groups, stairs with various slopes. Start with something easy like 4/4 or 2/3, then try 1/10 and 10. Ask students to hold up their stairs each time, which will provide plenty of teachable moments. Ask guiding questions like, "Will stairs with a slope of ___ be more or less steep than the last line we made?" "Would it be easy or hard to climb stairs with a slope of...?" Challenge them to show you zero or undefined slope as well.

Independent Practice: Now you could give your students traditional slope problems to practice, perhaps an assignment from earlier in the year that everyone had trouble with. Encourage them to use their paper to model what they see.

Alternately, you could give students a narrow sliver of lined paper to create stairs that would become part of a 3D mini-poster explaining how to find the slope of a line.

Closing: Ask your students to write a short definition for slope in their own words or show an example. Remind them, of course, to avoid writing about slop.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Free Magazines for your Classroom Library

I have always kept at least a small bookshelf in my classroom. I hope to inspire students to read and discover new things, even though in my various teaching experiences I have never taught an English class. Besides the obvious benefits of encouraging independent reading, all of the content area standardized tests are, by my estimation, one billion times easier if students have excellent reading skills.

I learned from my time teaching at an alternative school that it is possible to inspire even the most reluctant student to read, provided that you offered a wide enough range of topics and formats. So what was in my first years of teaching just a modest collection of books expanded to include more books, sponsored newspapers, and the most criminally underused resource of all: magazines. I started with the titles I already subscribed to, and then laid out a plan to amass as many as possible:
  1. Bring in magazines you subscribe to (or buy) as soon as you're done with them. I started by bringing in my favorite magazine, Wired, a very intelligent and accessible title that covers technology and its interaction with everything else. It's been a huge hit with my 9th graders. Like most people, once I'm done reading the magazine, I have no more use for it. This also goes for any single issues you pick up along the way. Even if they don't find the magazine of interest for reading, they can be used for projects (in your class or others).
  2. Request free trial issues. I used to treat these solicitations as junk mail, but I realized that this is an easy opportunity to get more free reading material for my students. These often come bundled with your current subscriptions. For example, I got two free issues of Dwell, a beautifully illustrated architecture and design magazine, by just sending in a postcard that came with Wired.
  3. Ask your local public library. Most public libraries sell older magazines for ridiculous prices like ten issues for a $1. When I reached out for donations for my classroom library earlier this year, I was invited to visit one local library and take what I wanted for free. These magazines were old and had already been discounted greatly, but since it was for a school all I had to do was ask. It helps to know people who work at or volunteer for the library, but again don't be shy about asking for donations.
  4. Search the classifieds. Especially for those of you in or near big cities, newspapers and Craigslist will often have listings for free magazines. Most people are willing to give things away that they'd otherwise discard as long as you're willing to go pick it up. You might even find a windfall of books if you're lucky.
  5. Ask for donations from friends, family and your community. My classroom received subscriptions to Discover and Mental Floss thanks to the generosity of several people. I was genuinely surprised at how much my students love Discover, which inspires me to keep this project going.
  6. Grab a stack of free local magazines. In the Rio Grande Valley, local favorite RGV Magazine is pretty much the only game in town--and most of it is filled with ads. However, nothing's better for relating to your students than a local production. Think of the Improper Bostonian.
Take advantage of legitimately FREE magazine subscriptions

This is the greatest coup of all. Shortly after starting my plan, I remembered that DVD enthusiast website DVD Talk had a constantly updated list of free magazine subscriptions (click on the first thread). More recently I found an entire forum devoted to free magazines on, an online community that aggressively seeks out the best deals on everything. Through these two lists I got free subscriptions for my classroom to: Hispanic, Batanga Latin Music, Siempre Mujer, Spin, EGM, and Latina. There is enough variety on the two lists to ensure you'll find something that will pique the interest of your students. Did I mention they are updated daily? They also offer leads on cheap subscriptions and can hook you up with somebody who wants to "trade" a subscription they have for one they want, if you're willing to spend a little money.

Things to Avoid

To avoid spam and additional solicitations, you should not use your primary email address to sign up for anything online (this included). In other words, set up an email address to use just for signing up for things. If you want to avoid junk mail in your real mailbox, have the magazines shipped directly to school. This also eliminates the need to remove your home address before bringing it to school.

Obviously you have be careful with which magazines you choose to bring in. Even Wired, which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend, sometimes has questionable content for students. For example, every issue of Men's Health is full of information I wish all of my male students would read, but there's a whole lot of sex in there too. It's not worth the time it would take to rip out the stuff that might get me in trouble just to have one more title. The same goes for a lot of otherwise quality publications.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Lesson Idea: Investigating Linear Function Graphs Lab

Last year, after weeks of working on linear equations, slope, and y-intercept, my students were still lost on the nuances of the concept. I thought that how changing the slope and y-intercept would effect the graph was obvious. Sure, you could graph equations to compare and contrast them on the graphing calculator, but the problems would be a hundred times easier if they could visualize these effects without the calculator. I also thought that I could connect these ideas to simple quadratic equations (in y = ax2 + c form).

I did some research and found various permutations of lessons where students would graph various linear equations and observe the differences, but nothing fit the bill. So I put together a first version, which incorporated many different ideas into one lab. Long story short, it was far too complicated and served only to frustrate my students.

So I rewrote the directions and questions, eliminated the quadratic equations (important of course, but distracted students from the linear equations part) and anything else that took the focus off of what happens when the parameters of linear equations change.

The goal is to get them to start to predict and visualize what changes in the equation will do to the graph, and to be able to problem solve, make observations and plan

The lab follows the scientific method and the structure of the type of lab reports I used to write for science classes in middle and high school:
  1. Pose a question: How can we predict the shapes of linear equations without a calculator?
  2. Do research: Already done through our previous work.
  3. Construct a hypothesis: In class, I define hypothesis and connect it to what they have done and will do in future science classes. Based on our work thus far, what do they think is the answer to the question we posed?
  4. Test the hypothesis in an experiment: Graph groups of linear equations with one parameter changing (y-intercept only, increasing and decreasing slope, changing the sign of the slope) with calculators, in order to make observations about how we might figure out what will happen without calculators.
  5. Make observations and analyze data: I keep the questions very focused on the observations I think should be obvious (for better or worse).
  6. Draw a conclusion: Was the hypothesis correct? What did you learn from this experiment?
This year's lab still took two class days to complete, but unlike last year, they were two productive days. I have still not figured out how to word the observation questions to avoid all confusion, but again, perhaps that's my problem. I keep trying to drive the students toward the conclusions I want them to draw, towards seeing these equations the way I see them. Perhaps that's my fatal flaw: I can't expect all of my students to see things my way. Maybe they don't need to, if they can see the big picture themselves.

The TI-Navigator could obviously be integrated into this project, however, I think it's better that the students make the graphs and draw conclusions individually.

If you can improve upon this idea, please let me know so I can share it here (teachforever AT gmail DOT com).

FreeRice: Learn Vocabulary, Save the World

I want to help spread the word about amazing website, FreeRice. At FreeRice, you expand your vocabulary by trying to define increasingly challenging words. Every time you get a word right, FreeRice donates the money they earn from the advertising on the bottom of the screen to buy rice for the United Nations World Food Program.

The difficult of the vocabulary adjusts depending on how well (or how badly) you're doing. It is amazingly addictive. I had about 2,000 grains of rice in about 10 minutes of playing.

I couldn't help but think of how great this would be for teachers trying to get their students to expand their vocabulary, prepare them for college entrance exams, and help their understanding of text that's at a high reading level.

Please play today!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Teacher Stress Relief: Outsourcing Your Life

In the final part of our three-part series applying the lessons from The 4-Hour Workweek to teachers, I wanted to share Ferriss' intriguing ideas about outsourcing your life. In the book, Ferriss discusses outsourcing your time-consuming tasks to a personal assistant in India (which is easier and cheaper than you might think).

Obviously this arrangement can't work for teaching, grading, or attending mandatory meetings. However, this idea reminded me that I wasn't outsourcing enough work to my students, a common stress reducing tip for teachers. After reading the book last summer, I made outsourcing a top priority this year.

I used to believe I had to personally check each individual answer on every assignment and return it to students promptly in order to assure student success. Consistent, constructive feedback is absolutely important, but what I was doing was just madness. Often I was doing more work grading than many students had done to complete the assignments in the first place!

First, I do less grading. I still grade tests, quizzes and projects (although the structure of those have changed as well) because these are the real assessments that tell me if they have mastered specific objectives. As far as daily work, homework, extra credit or "Do Now" grades, we review and correct most of that work in class. Thus when I check the work, almost always during independent practice in class, I'm looking primarily for completion--there's no excuse for anything to be missing or incorrect because we went over everything together in class.

"What if they're just copying or cheating?" This is a valid concern, addressed primarily through constant checks for understanding, active monitoring throughout the class period, and (most importantly) instilling a strong sense of responsibility in your students. If, despite your efforts students they are still trying to manipulate the system, they will inevitably fail the assessments because they don't know the material, and their grade is weighted 70% towards the tests, quizzes and projects. This doesn't mean you don't care about, teach, or reteach your students, nor that you are lazy or doing any less work. Your hard work will be more productive because you can spend more time analyzing data and designing the most effective lessons possible.

Next, you should also involve your kids in organizing, cleaning and other daily procedures and repetitive tasks in your classroom. It is part of the collective knowledge base of teachers that students young and old love to be given important jobs, whether they want to feel needed and respected or they just enjoy helping the teacher. Have students in charge of distributing and collecting materials, updating bulletin boards, cleaning up, and yes, even as graders on the occasional quiz. Just make sure to follow the book's Golden Rules for delegating work:
Golden Rule #1: Each delegated task mus tbe both time-consuming and well-defined. If you're running around like a chicken with its head cut off and assign your [helper] to do that for you, it doesn't improve the order of the universe.
Golden Rule #2: On a lighter note, have some fun with it... Being effective doesn't mean being serious all the time. It's fun being in control for a change. Get a bit of repression off your chest so it doesn't turn into a complex later.
For the teacher, having fun with it could mean having a student bring funny notes to other teachers to try to make them bust out laughing in the middle of their class. You get the idea.

I have cut my work outside of school by about 90%. I don't spend entire weeknights or weekends grading any more; I take work home maybe once every two weeks. The rest is done at school because I am more productive while I'm there (see my other articles on stress relief).

I cannot recommend this book enough. Get it at The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.

This is the final part of a three-part series about teacher stress relief based on ideas from The 4-Hour Workweek.

Teacher Stress Relief: The Low-Information Diet

In the first part of my exploration of the ideas in The 4-Hour Workweek, we discussed eliminating wasted time and useless activities during the school day. The next step is to take on what author Tim Ferriss terms a “low information diet”. He argues that just as we feed our stomach a lot of junk food and empty calories, we feed our minds a lot of junk information:
Most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence. I challenge you to look at whatever you read or watched today and tell me that it wasn't at least two of the four.
This idea jumped right off the page at me. I already knew I read a lot of useless information, some of which I thoroughly enjoyed but most of which I just used to kill time. I often used my planning period to check my email (work and personal), click on the fluff news posted on the front page of portals (Have you ever noticed how little actual news is posted as the main feature on MSN or Yahoo!? Go ahead and click those links if you don't believe me.) or do the same at a news or sports website. It was bad enough I was wasting time that could be spent grading, doing necessary paperwork or preparing lessons and materials for the rest of the week. It was worse that I was wasting this time at all—in or out of school.

It is hard to go to CNN, for example, without clicking on the most irrelevant news. Just check the “most popular” stories of the moment and the stories will usually fall into one of these categories: bizzare, celebrity gossip, or cutesy “lighter side of the news” type stories. The same goes for sports news and even more “serious” newspaper websites.

Following the principle of selective ignorance, I stopped all web surfing during my planning periods, despite the urge to relieve stress by taking a break during the school day. Quite simply, I accepted that I would be much more stressed if I took work home than if I used my planning period to get important tasks done.

The next challenge I had to deal with was email. Ferriss tells us to check email only twice a day, around noon and then late afternoon so that there is enough time for all the responses you are awaiting to arrive. He also advises us to never read email first thing in the morning, because you'll use it to put off the more important tasks you should do first.

Using Ferriss' advice as a jumping off point, I went straight to my personal mailbox and unsubscribed from almost a dozen newsletters, then read, responded to, and either filed or deleted everything in my inbox. I stopped checking it every free moment and resigned myself to doing so once a day at most. I did the same with my school email, and thus freeing up future hours of otherwise wasted time.

I also took the low information diet idea further: to help curb myself from stressing over useless information given at department, team or other unavoidable meetings. At these meetings, we are often told to start thinking about things to maybe do in the future, or given vague, overly general directions to do more of this or less of that in the classroom with no specifics or guidelines. In the future, no one will check to see if we have done or not done these things, because these ideas come and go with the wind. We are told about these new things everyone is going to do, only for it to be forgotten about within a week or so. I don't worry about these things anymore, and because of my focus on selective ignorance, I am better able to discern what's really important.

Following the same line of thought, one of the best ways teachers specifically can avoid useless information is to avoid unnecessary meetings. This could mean avoiding eating lunch with other faculty, since it seems to be so hard for many to avoid gossiping about the latest trivial “news” at school. It means never going to meet with anyone unless:
  • You have a clear agenda (chit-chat is not part of the low information diet)
  • You know you won't be sitting outside the office for more than a few minutes. Set up a specific date and time to meet via email first. If all else fails, be sure you have necessary work to do while you're waiting or don't wait. Get up and go back to work.
  • You don't have a more important task to do first.
This part about unnecessary meetings is admittedly hard for me to follow. As a caring, responsible teacher (or so I like to think), I feel compelled to bring concerns to my administrators quite frequently. Unfortunately, just dropping in for a word quickly becomes a period-consuming monster. Even worse is when my good intentions have already been addressed or when I come to realization that this issue that won't or can't be addressed. In other words, I still need to learn how to pick my battles. When I follow the ideas in The 4-Hour Workweek, I avoid a lot of the stress that comes with trying to be a responsible citizen.

If you're wondering how to start, Ferriss provides a guide for a one-week trial “information fast” to give yourself the best idea of what it's like to escape the burden of unnecessary information: No newspapers/news websites, magazines, any audio that's not music, TV (except for 1 hour a day), books (except for 1 hour of fiction a day), or web surfing unless absolutely necessary for work. Do this for the week and tell me you don't feel better!

I tried this and had so much free time I didn't know what to do with it. It was like the school day had turned into half days because I had that many more hours free after school. I also felt pretty dumb for spending so much time at school doing non-school-related things for so long. Now I know better, and so do you!

This is part 2 of a three-part series on teacher stress relief. Read Part 1 or go on to Part 3: Outsourcing Your Life.

DISCLAIMER: I am in no way associated with Timothy Ferriss or The 4-Hour Workweek. I just really love it and hope you buy a copy to support the author. For more information on the book and author, visit

Ten Effective Ways to Use a Word Wall in the Secondary Classroom

Here are ten relatively simple ideas that you could easily use in your next class (assuming you already have a Word Wall):
  1. As a weekly "Do Now"/"bell ringer"/start-up activity. Ask your students, "Pick two words from the word wall that you know and write a definition or example for each one." This can be done weekly (at least), and make sure to have them do a different word each time! This is a quick and painless review that reinforces the importance of the vocab.
  2. Create an children's alphabet book. Students create a page for a vocabulary word from each letter of the alphabet, with a picture or drawing and simple explanation for each term. This is better to use at the end of the year, when you'll probably have vocabulary from A-Z already on the word wall. Don't turn this into a scavenger hunt where the students find random words from the textbook--that's just wasted time. You can replace this activity with any differentiated product--a story, song, poem, etc--that requires the students to understand and use vocabulary correctly.
  3. One-page posters. Drawing on the idea I posted last month, the one-page poster is one of the most effective and easiest to implement. Students create a mini-poster on blank unlined paper that shows one vocabulary word, a simple definition, and an example problem. The problem must be solved and explained. Afterward, the work is posted in the classroom as a reference for students and referred to by the teacher constantly.
  4. Bilingual Glossary. If you have a large number of ELL/LEP students in your classes like I do, these types of projects are important for them to build not only their content-area knowledge but their overall English reading skills. Students create a glossary of a set number of word wall terms that includes the word, a definition, and example. The word and definition should be in English and their first language. Internet access might be needed in classrooms where you have many different primary languages spoken so that students can translate words. You can also make most of the other ideas here into a "bilingual" assignment.
  5. Include "test question" words on the Word Wall. For example, besides content-area vocabulary like slope, y-intercept and linear function, my students need to know what to do when they are asked to simplify or evaluate something. In addition, there are terms for processes or methods, like using the vertical line test to determine if a graph is a function, that are often overlooked. Include all of the most frequently used ones in your list.
  6. Give your Word Wall list to other teachers. Keyboarding, business and computer teachers are often happy to incorporate core area vocabulary into their curriculum. If they're not very open to it, ask them to offer it as an extra credit assignment. Ask English teachers (especially if you are teamed) if they could incorporate it as well. Make sure you give them something ready-made too: they don't want extra work any more than you do.
  7. Incorporate Word Wall terms into daily assignments, tests and quizzes. This is easy if you use some kind of Interactive Student Notebook, but make sure to put some typical vocabulary exercises into your other assignments and quizzes. The easiest way is to do some fill in the blank, short answer, or matching. I use fill in the blank about the previous day's work as a "Do Now" often.
  8. Create a team or grade level Word Wall. Work with your team or across the disciplines of your grade level to have common terms on every word wall. This way students will see (and hopefully use) the words repeatedly. This requires a bit of coordination and cooperation--like idea #6 above, you'll have to have some ideas that everyone can use quickly and easily use ready to give to reluctant participants.
  9. Students create a Crossword Puzzle using Word Wall terms. See my previous post.
  10. Use it and refer to it constantly. This means that you should refer to it during your lesson ("What's that word for a graph that's a straight line? It's on the word wall."), update it frequently, and incorporate it one of the ways described above (or come up with your own). It also means that words need to come off the wall periodically--they might be important for one chapter or unit, but not for the big picture. The other side of this is to be judicious in which words you put up there in the first place--you don't want a huge turnover every grading period either.
Share your word wall ideas in the comments.

If you like this idea, you can find more about it and nine other adaptable, classroom-tested lessons in my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom.

Project Idea: Word Wall (Vocabulary) Project

Last year, my school pushed the idea of putting a "word wall" in every classroom. A word wall, for the uninitiated, is basically a vocabulary bulletin board. This is widely used in elementary classrooms (especially early elementary) for sight words, words that a reader should know on sight without having to look it up or think about it. I am all for anything that incorporates more literacy into the classroom, but there are two big challenges:
  1. Using word walls in high school classrooms is uncharted territory. Most resources (websites, books) about word walls are designed for elementary students--far too easy for high school students.
  2. In two years of use, no one at school has ever told us how to use a word wall. The administration wants one on every classroom wall in case anyone from the district wanders in to see what we're doing to help our LEP students (the group did poorly on state tests last year and thus we did not make Adequate Yearly Progress). It also gets written into our campus plan and other plans of action to say "Look at all of the things we are doing," whether they are actually helping or not.
Instead of dismissing the word wall as meaningless and useless (which I do with a lot of harebrained ideas thrown at the teachers), I have been adapting elementary-level ideas, high school vocabulary-building ideas and successful ideas from my years teaching social studies to turn this into something positive.

Instead of starting a new topic on our short week before Thanksgiving Break, I used that time to do a Word Wall Project to review all of the relevant vocabulary we had covered so far. All of the words are included or are part of a concept covered on our state-mandated TAKS test. Best of all, this project can be used for any subject and most grade levels, although this is probably most appropriate for middle and high school students.

The project requires students to recall or look up the definitions of about 25 words from the word wall, write clues (definitions, examples, pictures, or graphs) in their own words, and arrange them into a crossword puzzle. The crossword puzzle could be replaced with a word search or anything that would require giving the clues a second and third look. The important part of the project, though, is that students create the clues in their own words, ensuring some level of understanding.

I also included five reflection questions which, besides insuring they wrote more, reminded them the importance of such work and helped me learn which concepts still need reteaching:
  1. List the words that you already knew the definition for in your head.
  2. Why is it important to write definitions in your own words?
  3. Why do we need to know these vocabulary words?
  4. Which words do you understand better after doing this project?
  5. Which words are you still confused about?
As you can see in the project directions, each day had a specific task to keep students focused and on track to finish. The first day was devoted to creating the clues, and the second day was for creating the puzzle and answering the reflection questions. I also included a checklist to make sure they completed everything before turning it in.

I created a 20 column, 20 row table of .25" by .25" squares to give to students on day two, to avoid time wasted drawing boxes and fiddling with rulers. Any grid paper would suffice.

20 words may be too much for students to complete in the allotted time--cutting it down to 15 should give classes that are working diligently but need more time enough to finish it in class. You may also keep the 20 words but allow students to work in pairs so they can split the work.

Extension Ideas
  1. Give students standardized test questions that include each term or concept.
  2. Pick out the best puzzles from each class and give them back to the students in that class as an extra credit assignment.
  3. Have students write 1-2 of the definitions they created as a "Do Now" assignment in subsequent class periods.
If you like this idea, you can find more about it and nine other adaptable, classroom tested lessons in my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Project Idea: Students Create the Test

Looking for a way to break the monotony of weekly quizzes? I have an alternative assessment idea that I believe is actually more effective at ensuring your students know what they need to know. I don't claim this is an original idea, but like all good teachers, I beg, borrow and steal.

Instead of giving the students another quiz, have them assume your role and create a quiz. You provide the topic, source material, and as much or as little guidance as you think appropriate to start them on their way. They are forced to think about the type of questions you would have asked them anyway and how to answer them. If they create a multiple choice quiz, they also think about the type of mistakes students would typically make in order to create logical, challenging answer choices.

Last year I had students become Teacher for a Day and write a multiple-choice quiz on adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing integers. Since that group of students was complaining and stressing out over the work, I geared the assignment toward assuaging their concerns. They would create a quiz, and to make it a bit easier, I borrowed a trick from my favorite teacher, Mr. Cosgrove. Cos (as we called him), my 10th grade US History teacher, would always throw a few jokes into his tests:
This is where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the Civil War:

A. Appomattox Court House
B. Gettysburg
C. Bull Run
D. In a steel cage match
Even better, sometimes he just made sure you were paying attention:
A result of the French and Indian War was that King George III declared:

A. The Proclamation of 1763
B. Go back to answer A.
C. Seriously, check out A again.
D. Why are you still reading this? The answer is A!
This made the arduous testing schedule a little easier for last year's students to swallow. Being the "Teacher for a Day" was fun, different and most importantly effective.

This year, my students seem to be much better prepared for Algebra I work, so I used "joke" answers as an example of an ineffective assessment. I used the "Create a Quiz" project to assess them on slope-intercept form. The day before, I gave them the Slope-Intercept Study Guide consisting of 5 multiple choice questions, each of which had a hint guiding them towards the answer. These are the questions I would have included on a quiz, and would serve as examples for the project.

The next day, the Slope-Intercept Project worksheet included answers to the study guide, which we went over in class. The quiz they create would follow the same format and wording; they would supply their own equations, numbers and answers. I pointed out work we had done in two separate workbooks and the textbook as sources for other questions, but noted they could also create their own.

Besides the obvious benefits, there's a small bonus: students see how much work goes into creating even a small assessment and learn it's not easy to be the teacher. Hopefully, they come out of this with a little more appreciation for what you do every day.

Create a Quiz project examples

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Aligning Our Textbook to State Standards

After adopting a new textbook earlier this year, Holt, Rinehart and Wilson's Algebra 1, 2 and Geometry, my school district hired a company to evaluate it. The company, Evans Newton Inc (ENI), found the correlation between the textbook and our state standards. When I heard that we would have a training where they would report their findings, I immediately had a question: Why didn't we do this before we bought the books? Doesn't it make sense that we should have known six months ago whether or not our textbook actually covers state standards?

"It is very expensive," I was told, and thus we couldn't afford to do the same with the different textbooks we were considering in the spring. Great, I thought: we're short on teachers, instructional technology and quality software to help students catch up on basic skills and we're spending thousands of dollars to tell us whether we should have bought the book we're stuck with for just under a decade.

Luckily, learning our textbook was only 67% "highly" correlated to our state standards was not the only point of the training. After absorbing the details of the report, we would try to "fill the gaps" that were poorly covered by the text with other resources over several more days of training. Unlike many of the trainings I've attended in my career, this one is absolutely necessary and beneficial. We do need to spend some time going through the resources we have available to supplement the textbook, and it's nice to be paid to do so. This is, of course, something good teachers do all the time; most textbooks across the content areas are useless as teaching tools by design.

Unfortunately, there were some inherent flaws in this process:
  1. ENI looked only at the textbook itself and left out all of the supplementary materials that are, in reality, part of the textbook (standardized test prep, videos, websites, lab manuals, reteaching and assessment workbooks, etc).
  2. Some of the objectives that ENI said were completely covered by the textbook, were, in my opinion, severely lacking. For example, some sections we've already covered just didn't have enough practice for challenging objectives, and I actually have been using the student workbooks from our old Prentice Hall textbook!
  3. On the other hand, ENI said the textbook was lacking in several areas that are simply not a priority for us because they're not tested, which leads us to...
  4. The evaluation process compared the textbook and each subject's state standards, not the objectives that are actually tested in grades 9 to 11. So a lot of what's supposedly lacking is in areas that aren't tested until the next year or in some cases not at all.
This doesn't mean the training isn't helpful; most of our math teachers were coming to the same conclusions and adjusting what they were doing to focus more on what we need to help our students succeed on April's TAKS test. We will continue our work and put together some excellent resources to help our students.

Overall, I can't help but be bothered by one overarching issue: Why aren't the states, colleges and universities, or education-focused non-profits doing this work for free? Isn't this particular service directly beneficial to student learning by facilitating better curriculum through research and collaboration? It angers me that the public cannot see fit to create the kind of curriculum materials or professional development our educators need for free and that education profiteers jump at the opportunity to fill these needs and extort districts out of millions of dollars every year. This is not an indictment of ENI for doing their jobs, but if this country really cared about education, their jobs wouldn't need to exist.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Teacher Stress Relief: Lessons from The 4-Hour Workweek

There's a warning on the back cover of The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss: "WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU WANT TO QUIT YOUR JOB". Now, I didn't want to quit my job, but I wanted to quit the way I was doing it. Ferriss provides a map for escaping the sort of 9-5 corporate job that we don't have, but he also provides a blueprint for "living more and working less," which every hardworking teacher needs to do. It is because of this book that I started this website and have been enjoying a life outside of school. There's so much in this book that can change your life, so let's get started.

Forget Time Management: Eliminate Time Wasters

The idea that jumped out at me immediately is called Parkinson's Law. In short, Parkinson's Law states that the more time you devote to something, the more important you think it is and the more complex you make it out to be. In other words, you invent ways to make yourself busy, creating extra work when there's no need for it instead of finding the most efficient way to get things done.

I used to use this principle to my advantage in high school and college: when I had a paper or project due, I usually gave myself only the night before to complete it, thus insuring that I would have no choice but to do only the most essential work. This worked out pretty well for me: I can't remember failing anything (although I do remember one D on an 11th grade poetry anthology). Ferriss gives a similar example with similar results. Why does it work?
It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it's six days of making a mountain out of a molehill.
This also applies for the time you give students to do assignments in your classes!

Only after reading this did I realize and accept how much time I have wasted creating work where there is none, or doing necessary work in the least productive way possible. How else could I explain the 2-3 hours minimum I used to spend in my classroom after school? I would invent meaningless tasks, even meaningless procedures and systems for my students, that would distract me from what I really needed to do. I would clean out and rearrange file folders, grade things that didn't need to be graded, spend hours deciphering students' notebooks or just plain waste time reading and re-reading school email. My health, personal life and ultimately my students fell victim to my desire to be "busy" and thus convince myself I was doing everything possible to do a good job.

A recent example was a system I created my first year teaching. Every student had a file folder, color coded by period, where they could store papers I turned back to them or anything else they desired. Oh the countless hours I would spend labeling, relabeling, and of course filing the huge stacks of papers that I had graded. The problem of course was that 99% of the students never looked at these papers, even as intended (to help them study for unit and standardized tests and as a portfolio to keep). When I taught US history, students already had a quality portfolio of their work: their interactive student notebooks. In Algebra, I have realized this is not as useful anymore. So this year I finally got rid of the student folders, and saved myself hours of work in doing so. Along with other steps inspired by the book, I think I've cut my time spent working outside of school hours by about 80%.

Ferriss provides guiding questions throughout the book to help stir the reader to action. Here are questions from this chapter:
  1. If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do?

    I had to do this Thursday and Friday last week (working two hours a day, not having a heart attack). I was sick but had to go in early in the morning to set up two self-directed lessons in less than two hours each day for my students. There was no reason for my students to fall behind due to my absence; I have already established that all the work done when there's a sub is to be taken seriously. I had to quickly adapt what I had already planned into something they could do with no help (because believe me, they won't get any from the sub) but still allow them to learn and practice what they needed to know. I was also forced to stop toying with an idea for an assignment to bridge this week's and next week's activities and I just got it done. Everything I would have done with them if I was there was still done, just without the guidance that I would normally provide.

  2. If you had a second heart attack and had to work two hours per week, what would you do?

    I don't know if any teacher could answer this question without deciding they couldn't be a teacher. Don't miss the point of the question, though: what kind of opportunities to follow your dreams could you facilitate in only two hours per week? Ferriss gives a lot of easy-to-follow advice to get your started.

  3. If you had a gun to your head and had to stop doing 4/5 of different time-consuming activities, what would you remove?

    I'll talk about this more in parts 2 and 3 of this series, but I can list most of them right now: redundant grading, writing detailed lesson plans, filing, email, and sitting in “waiting rooms” before unnecessary meetings.

  4. What are the top-three activities that I use to fill time to feel as though I've been productive?

    Cleaning up after students, constantly reorganizing my filing system, writing a detailed lesson plan when no one really reads the details.

  5. Learn to ask, "If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?"

    Ferriss advices is to use a to-do list with no more than two critical tasks to guide your day. I have always been the kind of person to make to-do lists to keep myself focused, but I often put time wasters on the list and give myself hours to work.

  6. Put a Post-It note on your computer screen: "Are you inventing things to do to avoid the important?"
This is part 1 of a three-part series on teacher stress relief based on ideas from the The 4-Hour Workweek. Read Part 2: The Low Information Diet and Part 3: Outsourcing Your Life.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fix Your School Computer and Prevent Problems for FREE

UPDATED 12/25/08
Is your school computer running extremely slow (or not at all)? When you try to use Internet Explorer, are there multiple toolbars that you don't remember installing that ironically have no useful tools? Do you have popups, popunders and unexplained new annoyances in the system tray (the little icons next to the clock) no matter what you're doing?

Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news: you have spyware and/or viruses. The good news: You can probably clean up everything by yourself, today, for free.

The sad truth about commercial antivirus (McAfee, Norton, etc), spyware removal (anything you can buy at a store), and firewall software (like the one Windows now has built-in) is that they usually don't catch everything (or anything). Even worse, these programs are so big and bloated that they make your system slower than the threats they are supposed to protect you from!

Even if your system is running smoothly, you need to prevent future problems by following all of the steps below. Obviously you can only do this if you have administrator privileges on your computer, which means you can install software yourself. If you don't have the ability to do that, you probably don't have a lot of these problems to begin with, but you may need to ask if your system seems slow or buggy.

Step 1: Get Rid of Spyware

First, download these two free programs (you'll need both):

Close anything like Internet Explorer or Word that you might be running before you start.

Install Ad-Aware first. Follow the installation instructions, and click "OK" when it asks you to update your "definitions" (the list of bad stuff it will search for). When it has finished, start a full system scan. This may take a while to finish, especially if there's a lot of bad stuff on your computer. When the scan is done, Ad-Aware makes a weird noise and a little flashing bug appears if it found something bad. Right click on the list, click Select All, and then click Next to remove the threats. Close the program. [Ad-Aware Product Manual (PDF)]

Then, install SpyBot S&D. You will have to click through a similar installation process and approve updates. When you're done installing and updating, click Check for problems to run the scan. When it's finished, click Fix selected problems and approve removing the bad items. [SpyBot installation tutorial]

These two programs compliment each other; SpyBot will find things that Ad-Aware didn't, and vice versa. Sometimes these programs will say they have to reset the computer or scan it the next time you start up. This is no problem. In fact, after you finish the rest of the steps, I recommend running both of these programs again to make sure every last problem is fixed.

Step 2: Get Rid of Viruses

Spyware and viruses are different types of threats, so they require different types of programs to get rid of them. If you already have a virus scanner like Norton or McAfee and can uninstall it, do it (this goes for your home computer too). Replace them with one of these more effective free options:

Install one of them, following the directions and allowing it to update if needed. You might need to restart the computer and let it scan at startup, just like the spyware removers. Both of these programs are fairly easy to use and don't slow down your computer, all the while keeping you safe. Unlike the spyware removers, this program will keep running all the time to help fend off threats. [AVG User Manual - Avast! Installation Guide (both in PDF)]

Step 3: Install a Firewall

Most people still seem to think that as long as they don't visit certain websites or open certain emails that there's no way they'll get anything. Unfortunately, you don't have to do anything for a lot of bad things to happen, because as long as your computer is connected to the Internet, is it vulnerable.

To protect yourself, you need a firewall, a program that blocks access unless you approve it. Having your computer always on the Internet without a firewall is like leaving your house with the doors and windows unlocked: anybody can "walk" right in. The anti-virus and anti-spyware programs only help after you've been infected, so you need to protect yourself from ever getting infected as well.

The best firewall available is also free: ZoneAlarm Firewall.

Once you install it, it will ask you to approve any program trying to access the Internet for the first time, and will block incoming requests from computers trying to connect to yours from afar. The warnings might be annoying sometimes, but they're not that frequent and they're the best protection. As a bonus, even though it will be running all the time, ZoneAlarm doesn't slow down your computer like more expensive security software will. [ZoneAlarm support and user guides]

Step 4: Other Tips to Prevent Future Problems

  • Keep your anti-virus and firewall programs running at all times.
  • Run both spyware removers and a full anti-virus scan at least once a month, or any time your computer seems a little buggy.
  • Spybot S&D has an option to protect you from programs that try to change Internet Explorer's settings called TeaTimer. It runs in the background and doesn't have any popups or icons. Turn it on. Read more about TeaTimer here.
  • Better yet, replace Internet Explorer with Mozilla Firefox. Microsoft's programs are the most widely used (and the most buggy) and thus the target of most attackers on the Internet. Firefox will crash less, is just as easy to use, and less vulnerable to attack. Download Firefox here.
  • Keep your students off your computer as much as possible, and monitor them when they do use it. They are generally less knowledgeable about the security threats out there, which means they are more likely to download things from shady websites and emails that will mess up your computer.
  • Be suspicious. Learn how to spot malicious email in this slideshow from PC World magazine and this advice from the Anti-Phishing Working Group. Keep up with the latest security threats at CNET Security Center.
  • Turn on Automatic Updates for Windows, which will make sure that the latest security flaw found in Windows will be patched before anyone can exploit it. Again, having a firewall and the rest of the software above will keep you well protected between updates.
What to do when nothing works

If your computer is so messed up you can't even access the Internet to download these programs, try downloading everything on another computer and saving the files to a flash drive so you can still install them.

If you're at a total loss with how to use these programs, or you tried everything and you still have problems, now is the time to call for help. Your school technology staff is probably overburdened and hard to get in touch with--find a knowledgeable colleague or trusted student and ask them to help.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Adding and Subtracting Integers Card Game

Last year my students had their usual struggles with adding and subtracting integers at the beginning of the year (this is not just a middle school problem). So I used a game I found online called Twenty Five, where students would draw from a regular deck of cards and add them to a pile, trying to reach a target sum of 25. Red cards were negative and black cards were positive, and each new card would be added to all the ones put on the pile before it. Presumably students were writing down each addition problem they did. It was a waste of time: it was hard to monitor whether students were adding correctly during the game, and difficult for students to keep track of and add up 10, 15 or 20 numbers quickly.

Since then I have been laboring over an idea for my own game, since I believe this would help my students internalize an essential skill. I came up with a complete game, but it was too complicated for classroom use (based on my experience with Like Terms); too many rules and steps to get caught up in would leave the core activity lost in the fray. It could be suited for an advanced class, block schedule or playing at home. In a regular 45-55 minute class, things need to be simpler.

I actually eschewed any game this year and focused on the number line as a simpler tool for students to use to add and subtract integers correctly. What dawned on me last weekend was that the number line was the missing piece to the puzzle. Here now, for the first time ever, is Plus/Minus.

  1. Standard 52-card deck of playing cards
  2. Paper and pencils.
  3. 2 objects to mark a goal and starting location
  1. Students draw a number line on a piece of paper, at least from -10 to 10 with room for more.
  2. Have 2 objects (maybe candy the winner can eat afterwards?) to mark the location of the goal and the current location of the players
  3. No cards are dealt. There is a face down draw pile and face up pile for each card drawn.
Game Play
  1. Flip the top card from the draw pile. This is the goal. Black card are positive whole numbers and red cards are negative (aces are 1 and all other face cards are 10). The starting point is zero.
  2. Each student takes a turn flipping the next card from the draw pile. They add that number to 0 and move to the resulting location. If they reach the goal number, they win. If not, their turn is over and each player takes a turn moving back and forth on the number line until someone reaches the goal.
  3. After one or several games (depending on time) , switch to subtracting all numbers.
While They Play

Students must write down each simple addition or subtraction problem they are doing throughout each game. This is what you can check and grade immediately as you are monitoring the game. Follow up with homework for practice.


At the end of this lesson, use a mini-poster where students have to show an example, write out how to do it (what the rule is) and most importantly include the correct answer. Hang the best ones up on the wall (as you should always do with good examples of student work).

When To Play

This would be a good game to play after a day where you had introduced the concepts or when you were reteaching. I think that the number line makes this concept easy to understand with little upfront work, but that is an assumption on my part. Use it whenever you feel it is appropriate.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Combining Like Terms Card Game Revisited

The Like Terms card game has been the most popular idea posted here, accounting for half of this blog's traffic since its inception. The truth is though, like most good ideas, it still needs work. I have been wracking my brain to find ways to simplify the game after watching many of my students get caught up in the rules and procedures because they don't have experience playing traditional card games (like rummy, upon which Like Terms was originally based).

My solution is to cut out all but the essential parts: the deck of "Like Terms" cards, having students create groups of 3-4 like terms, and adding or subtracting them (simplifying) when the game is over.

Simplified Rules for Like Terms
  1. Deal 7 cards.
  2. Players lay out their hand face up in front of them for all to see and arrange them into groups of like terms.
  3. Each player draws one card and tries to make a set of 3-4 like terms.
  4. Repeat until one player has a group of complete sets.
  5. The winner adds all of their terms together, but the losers add complete sets and subtract incomplete ones.
This setup also allows you to add a few new cards to the deck to create some new twists:
  1. "Killer" cards - Add cards that don't have any like terms in the rest of the deck, essentially ending a player's chances of winning since you can't complete a set. Maybe there's two like terms, but a third or fourth matching card doesn't exist (i.e. z2, x2y2, a4, etc)
  2. Skip, reverse and wild cards - My students may not know rummy, but they do know Uno, so you could add these to the deck as well.
  3. "Steal" cards - Action cards that allow players to steal one card from any other player that they need to complete a group, making the game a bit more competitive.
I think the original score sheet would actually work better with this version of the game as well.

If you have tried the original Like Terms card game in class or try out this new version, please email me or leave a comment. I want to continually improve the ideas posted on this site and I need your feedback to help me and the other teachers reading!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fantasy Football and Mathematics update

It has been very difficult to implement the curriculum from Fantasy Football and Mathematics: A Resource Guide for Teachers and Parents, Grades 5 and Up (Fantasy Sports and Mathematics Series). It's not because of resistance from the students--far from it. Many keep asking "When are we gonna do it?" and I reply, "Soon!"

The problem is one of time constraints. Our time line leaves little room for extension, creativity or innovation. I have schedule FF every week since school started, after our weekly assessment, but these quizzes have taken my students much longer than expected. Inevitably, we run out of time.

We've finally managed to make rosters and introduce how to calculate weekly scores, but it took 6 weeks. I left the students to do the first week of actual scoring themselves on Friday (see my last post), but the substitute didn't hand out the rosters that were right there on top of my desk, clearly marked and separated by period. Those who were able to do it seemed to do just fine.

  1. DOWNGRADE: Having students keep track of starters and bench players has been a confusing extra element on what can already seem like a daunting system. For now, they aren't "setting" starters like you would in online versions of FF, but usually picking their top listed players if they didn't mark anyone as requested. In the future, I'd either create a different roster worksheet than what is provided by FSM that would more clearly designate starters and bench players or eliminate the bench altogether to streamline the administrative part of the game.
  2. DOWNGRADE: The activities provided aren't aligned to my state standards. There's a lot of middle school level material. Also, all of them are based on the "default scoring system," which uses all fractions with a common denominator of 48. I don't like that system, and while I can freely change it for scoring, I can't easily change all the built-in activities. In short, I can't use a lot of what's provided.
  3. UPGRADE: FSM just developed a system that allows you to input each of your students' teams and print out only their team's stats! No more printing out 20 pages of stats per week to post on the wall (as I did this week), which was already a recent improvement over the nothing available up until this year. I give credit to the FSM company for trying to continually improve the system.
  4. UPGRADE: The lack of time issue is only going to get worse as we delve deeper into the fall semester, so I don't see any way around making this an extra credit project. I am working on getting some prizes for the end of the season to keep them involved and motivated, but I can't hold everyone strictly accountable for this on top of everything else we're doing in class. It's just too much. In the end though, there's plenty of students participating, and this makes things much easier on me.
Fantasy Sports and Mathematics official website

Click the tag "fantasy football" for more posts on this topic.

Friday, October 19, 2007

You Deserve a Mental Health Day

Today I didn't go to school. Today I took a mental health day (MHD). While I'm not on my death bed, I have had trouble sleeping all week and am emotionally and psychologically drained. I talked myself out of taking a day off all week: "I have a department meeting tomorrow," "I need to be here to teach that tomorrow," "if I can just make it through today I'll be fine," were some of the weak reasons I forced myself to go to school through Thursday.

The problem was, my mental state was steadily deteriorating by the day. To do a good job on any given day, I have to be:
  • well-rested
  • able to concentrate
  • patient
  • quick-witted
  • able to adapt on the fly
I was none of these by Thursday. I was experiencing some level of burnout--not totally uncommon when there's no break between Labor Day and Thanksgiving--and decided to take today off to recuperate. Perhaps that's why the World Federation for Mental Health declared October 10th as World Mental Health Day? In any case, I knew I was doing a disservice to my students, my school and myself if I didn't do something to repair the state I was in.

There are rules, however, to make the most of your Mental Health Day. If you deviate from these three simple rules, you won't be any less stressed or tired and will return to the same rut when you get back to school. You AND your students will suffer.

Rule #1: Do not do ANY school work.

This is the most important rule. Don't grade papers, plan lessons, or fill out administrative paperwork. If being behind on your work is part of the reason you are stressed out, you will be more productive after you have recharged your proverbial batteries.

What you can do, which will take all of a few minutes, is to make a "to do" list of what you need to get done after your MHD. Split this list into two categories: things to do tomorrow and things to do soon. This type of prioritizing is probably the most common advice you read in articles about getting organized and reducing stress. Be sure that this task is the only school-related thinking, if any, of your MHD.

Rule #2: No appointments!

Your MHD is not for doctor or dentist appointments, bringing your car in for service, or any activity that involves spending most of the day in a waiting room. While these are legitimate reasons to take time off occasionally, they don't count as MHDs, for the simple reason that more often than not these activities are more stressful than school!

Rule #3: Do something relaxing and/or fun.

This is where you can be the most creative and spontaneous. The object of this day is to escape your ordinary routine, leave stress behind, and wake up refreshed tomorrow. Here is a list of low cost (because we're poor teachers) ideas to get you started:
  1. Sleep late. How often do you get to do that?
  2. Sit down for breakfast. See #1.
  3. Go to the movies or have a movie day at home.
  4. Go outside. Some of us get very little sunlight most weekdays, which studies repeatedly suggest are at best affecting our mood and at worst affecting our health. Getting outside can be as simple as sitting in the backyard or be part of a real getaway (see #5).
  5. Day trip. If driving is not on your personal list of "most stressful activities", visit the nearest natural wonder--beach, lake, river, mountain, etc--and choose the appropriate level of activity for you (from reading a book to a challenging hike, run or water sport). Alternately, this is your chance to visit that local museum, restaurant or tourist attraction you've been dying to see.
  6. Work on your pet project. For example, writing an article for your blog!
There are no limits here, besides your budget and desired level of activity. The keyword is escape.

The Three Day Weekend vs. the Mid-Week Escape

I think it's safe to assume most teachers who take a MHD do so on a Monday or Friday to create the always popular three day weekend. They may even incorporate some travel which, while often expensive and stressful in its own way, is perfectly okay.

However, I think the benefits of the mid-week escape--Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday--are often overlooked. First of all, Mondays are often easy because the kids are recovering from all the fun you wish you were having. On Fridays the kids are indeed overexcited for the upcoming weekend, but so are you! The hardest days to get through, more often than not, are those middle three.

Thus these are the best days to plan a true escape. These are also the days when it is least difficult for the school to place a quality substitute in your room because fewer teachers take these days off. I know one reason good teachers avoid taking days off is an overwhelming sense of responsibility to avoid leaving the kids with a bad sub or leaving the administration scrambling to find a warm body to cover your class. Think of the middle of the week as your path of least resistance.

In terms of your mental health, what better way to break out of a rut than to break up your routine on a Tuesday or Wednesday? It is more than likely out of the ordinary for you to not be in a classroom or doctor's office in the middle of the week, making it that much more exhilarating. Use this day for a day trip, day spa or anything else that feels like the exact opposite of your daily routine. You'll return the next day more productive and effective than you were in days (probably weeks) before.

Coming soon: Avoiding burnout on a daily basis!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Project Idea: Independent vs. Dependent Variables

Independent vs. Dependent Variables example poster
I realize that since I am a math teacher, it must seem like all of the ideas and lessons I have posted are designed for math teachers only. This is not my intention. This blog is for all teachers looking for new ways to help their students succeed in their content areas. My intent is to share ideas that are easily adaptable to any subject and don't require extraordinary funds or effort to implement. Indeed many of my ideas, including this project, have their roots in my years teaching social studies.

When I started teaching math I was disheartened by how downright boring most of the teachers around me were making it. I had used a wide variety of approaches to help my students be successful in U.S. History, and it seemed obvious that these same ideas would work in Algebra. Unfortunately for the students outside my classroom, I was more or less alone in this perspective. Nonetheless I adapted my old ideas to my new subject rather easily because most of them were painfully simple ideas designed to be easy for me to do and easy for them to understand and remember.

One of the easiest and most powerful ideas you can use to teach anything is a mini-poster project. When I hear "project" in most classes I think of giant poster paper or tri-fold science fair project boards which require weeks of work (or, like I did when I was in school, a lot of focused work the day before it was due).

The difference here is scale: students illustrate a "poster" no bigger than a standard 8.5" by 11" piece of paper. Thus the focus is off the process and back on whatever it is you want them to know and understand. Use it to help students remember simple concepts and vocabulary by illustrating them and providing examples or explanations. By touching on multiple intelligences--linguistic (words), spatial (visual), kinesthetic (artistic, creative), logical-mathematical (in math at least)--you help reach more students. As I tell my students, "these are easy ideas, but also easy to forget, so we do things like this to make sure we know what we need to know."

This example project is designed to help students understand the concept of independent and dependent variables. Understanding the difference is something 9th graders are tested on in Texas, but more importantly it helps created a deeper understanding of linear relationships and more complicated functions.

An easy way to introduce this idea is to talk about cause and effect relationships, which students discuss in English and almost every other class. At their most basic level, independent variables are the cause and dependent variables are the effect. You could make a lot of connections to comparisons students might find easier:

What you doWhat happens

The idea of this particular project is that students will use two pictures (drawn or borrowed) to illustrate the relationship between independent and dependent variables. The project instructions contain numerous examples, but the premise is to have a picture of one thing that directly affects another, label them appropriately, and write a simple statement to explain the relationship (see the example above). I explain that this took all of 5 minutes to create after deciding on an example. Students are free to use any of the examples included or to create their own.

Most of the time you can assign this sort of project for outside of class, but it can also be used as independent practice or an alternative assessment to shake up your daily routine.

Grading is fairly easy; for those of you who like to create rubrics to keep things objective, these are the standard criteria:
  1. Following directions: Did they include all of the elements required (pictures/drawings, explanation, labels)?
  2. Clarity: Does their example make sense and is easy for others students to understand?
  3. Effort: Did the student put in time and effort into making the poster colorful, attention grabbing, and easy to read and see from afar?
I always stress with mini-poster projects that they need to keep in mind the other students who will look at their posters on the wall to try to understand the concepts, so they need to make it easy for anybody to understand. This forces them to reach the highest level of Bloom's Taxonomy (evaluation). Thus a "simple" project becomes something much more meaningful.

Poster Project: Independent and Dependent Variables

I used this same project in September for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing integers. Students had to include an example (with a correct answer) and an explanation of how to do it. I have also had students draw parent functions for linear and quadratic equations, and illustrate other vocabulary from the word wall for extra credit.

These are just the math applications; in U.S. History I used almost the same project to illustrate that the states had more power than the federal government under the Articles of Confederation; students showed examples of one thing having power over another (cat vs. mouse, etc) and labeled them accordingly. They never forgot the significance.

Comments, ideas and questions are always welcome!