Wednesday, August 29, 2007

First Day of School: Mini-Lesson on Calculating a Tip

The first day of school was, as always, a thrilling, frightening, and incredibly confusing marathon day. With over 2,000 students likely to fill up a building designed for 1,600 over the next week, it's not likely to get any less hectic any time soon. That being said, the honeymoon is still going strong in my classroom, even as I eschewed established norms and actually began teaching right on the first day.

I didn't do any icebreakers or team-building activity for 3 reasons:
  1. My students already had to be subjected to that from almost every other teacher.
  2. Most of the activities you can find online, even the ones that claim to be designed for high school students, are clearly designed for lower grades (or make the correct assumption that freshmen are scared out of their minds and will do whatever you tell them on the first day). A good sample can be found in "Fun Activities Get the School Year Off to a Good Start!" on Education World.
  3. I don't like them.
I spent a lot of time talking, to the point that my throat was ripped to shreds by the end of the day. I talked about all the important stuff from my first day materials. I read quotes from end-of-year surveys from last year, where my students answered the question: "If you knew someone in the 8th grade who was going to be in this class next year, what would you tell them?" The responses were insightful and inspirational--at least to me, anyway. I felt that anything I could try to tell them about myself would be better received coming from students instead.

I am one of those teachers that has a seating chart on the first day (desks are numbered and a numbered list was on the overhead), not because I care about that sort of thing, but because I desperately want to learn their names and I've found no better way. I had fun with it--I seated them reverse-alphabetically from front to back. The seating chart is of course also great for setting the tone--they walked in, found their assigned seat and had work to do immediately (the student survey).

I gave a whirlwind tour of my highly organized room, a space designed to both keep me sane and reinforce the mostly-business tone I was trying to establish:
  • I use those interlocking wire storage cubes to hold their notebooks, and have numerous crates of hanging files for various reasons.
  • There's a word wall, an elementary school strategy that our high school has adopted, thus forcing me to be very creative in coming up with effective uses.
  • The whiteboard is sectioned off with painter's tape demarcating my "Kickoff" (commonly known as the "Do Now" in TFA vernacular), agenda, TEKS objectives, and homework (usually blank space).
  • Weekly grades are posted on a bulletin board by ID number and rank, as well as extra credit opportunities for the six week grading period, to encourage them to take responsibility for their academics
  • Students of the Week (click for qualifications) are also posted, one for each class period. The only reward usually associated with it is the satisfaction of a job well done, and the occasional dropping of the lowest grade.
  • And, of course, our fledgling classroom library (books, magazines and newspapers), there for students to enjoy (when they're done with their work).
Afterwards, I told them they were going to do the one thing they didn't expect on the first day of school: they were going to learn something. Moreover, they were going to learn something they could use in real life and astound their friends and family with their amazing mathematical ability.

I presented a mini-lesson on calculating a restaurant tip in their heads:
  1. Start with a discussion of why its customary to tip waitstaff (typically they make their living off of tips, because they're often paid well below minimum wage), and what's considered a normal tip (15%) and a good tip (20% or above).
  2. Let's say we have a $25.00 bill, and we want to leave a 20% tip. Instead of pulling out a cellphone to use its calculator, we break the problem into a simpler step first: what's 10% of $25.00?
  3. Ask them if they know what 10% looks like as a decimal (0.1), and what happens when you multiply anything by 0.1. This is the central trick; the number doesn't really change. The decimal moves one place to the left, so $25.00 becomes $2.50.
  4. Now we know 10% is $2.50. Ask, "What do we have to do to the $2.50 to make it into 20%?" They might say, "Double it!" Make sure to ask why, so they're forced to explain that since 10 is half of 20, they have to add another 10% or $2.50 (or another similar explanation).
  5. Make sure to have them total the bill with tip ($30).
  6. Repeat step 4, but for a 15% tip instead. Ask them what has to be done to get that extra 5% (finding half of $2.50), and what the new total would be ($25.00 + $2.50 + $1.25 = $28.75).
I joked that they could tell whoever was going to pay to let them figure the tip and then have them check it on the cellphone calculator. For certain periods I extended this lesson into how to estimate how much money you could save on a sale, referring to back-to-school sales as a current real-world connection. I did an example of a $125.00 item that was 60% or 25% off, and we used the 10% trick to estimate it quickly and easily.

I enjoyed actually teaching something, and I think the mere gesture sent a clear message about how badly I want them to learn. If I accomplished all I hope I did on that first day, year 5 should be simply glorious.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Good luck on the first day of school!

Schools across the Rio Grande Valley will be starting tomorrow. Where I grew up in New Jersey, we never started before Labor Day, but the Valley (as always) is quite different. I could write a lot about how to survive the first days of school, and perhaps after I survive them myself I will, but for now I will say only this:

Always look like you're confident and know exactly what you're doing--even if you don't.

Good luck!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

First Day of School: sample student surveys, parent letters and more

With the first day of school rapidly approaching, I wanted to share the materials I have for the first day of school. I've always spent an inordinate amount of time creating, editing and tweaking these documents over the years, and I'm still not satisfied.

In any case, I have enclosed two versions of the documents I give to students on the first day of school (from this year and last).
  • Sample Parent Letter 1: This packet from last year includes a syllabus, parent letter (in English and Spanish) and parent survey. All of these documents were heavily influenced by examples and training from Teach for America--notice the rigid ladder of consequences, fun jargon like learning choices, and the awful Spanish translation of my parent letter. The parent survey (borrowed from my good friend Dave, maybe the best teacher I've ever met) does a great job of reaching out to parents to get them invested in their child's education.
  • Sample Student Survey 1: Culled from ideas and examples from the web and what I wanted to know, I pared a long list of questions last year down to the most relevant ones for me. My favorite is: "Do you think you're smart?" I've found over the years my students in the RGV have very little confidence in their intelligence and ability to meet the challenges I put before them. I believe all of my students are capable of doing whatever I give them, and so this question is the beginning of a fight to build my students back up. I also love to know about their extracurricular activities so I can follow their exploits and attend games whenever possible.
  • Sample Student Survey 2: When I edited this survey this summer, I made sure everything in there answered the question: "What do I really need to know to best help them learn?" I included a student contact information "card" at the end to save myself from the hassle of the actual index card I used to use. I slashed the schedule in favor of only my 2 conference periods (so I know where I can find them when I need to pull them out). I added the 4 yes/no/maybe questions because I realized over the course of last year that too many of my students would have answered "no" to all 4.
On the first day, my students will already have seats assigned when they walk in, and they'll work on Student Survey 2 and look over Parent Letter 2 after they find their seat. We'll discuss expectations and I'll give them a tour of the room--where to keep notebooks, find assignments, the classroom library (thank you to everyone who donated items), what to do with the "kickoff" (aka "Do Now"), etc to make procedures and norms very clear right away.

I would like to also incorporate something really interesting and engaging this year--a PowerPoint presentation, video, or maybe I'll just break out my guitar and sing a song about math (last year, I wrote and sang Domain and Range to the tune of Irreplacable by Beyonce). I don't have much time, but I work well under pressure and will come up with something. Alternately we may just start diagnostic testing, but I'd rather wait on that.

I hope you've found these materials useful!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sample 5e Lesson Plan: a Card Game for Combining Like Terms

A few weeks ago I discussed learning the 5e instructional model at a workshop this summer, but neglected to include the sample 5e lesson plan I had created using the model.

I started with an unfinished idea I had last year for teaching simplifying equations using a card game where the cards would be algebraic terms. My sister and I used to play rummy, spit and every other card game during summers at home when we were young. (We also used to play board games like Monopoly, but it inevitably ended badly). Reflecting on these memories as this summer started, I came up with "Like Terms".

Like Terms

Like Terms is played like rummy, but with a special deck of cards made up of sets of like terms: a, 2a... through 10a and so on for b, c, a2, b2, c2 and the integers 1-10.

The game follows the normal rules of rummy:
  • Each player is dealt 7 cards.
  • The remaining cards are placed face down--this is the draw pile.
  • The top card is flipped over to a new pile--this is the discard pile.
  • Each player draws a card, looks for a 3 or 4 card set of like terms, and places that face up on the table in front of them if they have it (7a, 3a and a or 6c2, 2c2, 4c2, and 10c2 would be two playable hands).
  • Whether they have something to play or not, they must then discard one card to end their turn.
  • Play continues until someone discards their last card and has no cards left.
  • The winner adds everything they placed on the table together. Everyone else subtracts what's in their hand from what they had placed on the table.
At this point in the real game of rummy, players would tally their score based on a point system. You could assign points to each variable in this game, I suppose, but I think that defeats the purpose. I would rather have the "scores" look like 15a2 + 16b2 + 9b + 6c + 7 for the winner and -5b2 - a - 6c - 11 for the loser and jump directly to giving students problems where they have to simplify expressions.

If you only explained the rules of Like Terms and told your students they would use only the game rules to solve math problems afterwards, it would make a sometimes boring and easily forgettable operation fun and easy to remember.

How to make a deck of cards for Like Terms the easy way:
  • Use white 3x5 index cards and at least 4 different colors of highlighters or flip chart markers (so the terms won't bleed through). Each term gets a different color (a and a2 are blue, b and b2 are red, etc), OR...
  • Use colored index cards for the sets and one marker that won't bleed through, OR...
  • Cut up scratch paper and use trusty blue, black and red pens, OR...
  • If you want to really get fancy, you can get card stock and print out cards on the computer.
Whichever method you choose, remember that you'll need multiple decks since a typical game should be 4 players (max 6).

How to use this in your classroom

I designed this with my 9th grade Algebra I students in mind, because they usually come to me unable to simplify expressions. This little problem, like so many little problems, gets compounded as we move into more complicated equations and make things infinitely more difficult than it needs to be. This is appropriate for the first few weeks of school when you're working on review, basic skills and procedures.

Some teachers may find this more appropriate for middle school, and I'd be interested to see how this would fare in a Pre-Algebra classroom. If you try it please share your results!

Here is the full sample lesson plan based on the 5e model to help you plan a complete lesson around this activity.

UPDATE 9/3/07: Since I will be using this lesson in class this week, I am adding 2 documents I will be handing out to my students as a one page back and front handout:
  1. Like Terms rules and scoring - Simplified for student consumption.
  2. Like Terms score sheet - This is a simple graphic organizer that they can hand in or you can refer to while monitoring the games so you can identify problems (and/or give them a grade for participation). I had to reformat this document for Google Docs, because it didn't like the tables I used for the score sheets or the columns I used to fit 2 on the same page. You might have to cut and paste to save paper. Or, email me at teachforeverATgmailDOTcom and I can send you the original document in OpenOffice, Word or PDF format.
Please leave comments or email me with feedback.

UPDATE #2 7/22/11: Check out Combining Like Terms Game Revisited for an alternate version of this game. I've expanded upon this lesson idea and many more in my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Teach for America Q&A: already licenced teachers

This is another email I received on MySpace that addresses the issues of already licensed and/or experienced teachers thinking about applying to TFA. I've never really heard the full story of one of the many people who follow this route into TFA, but I've heard and seen enough to offer this opinion:
Q: I read part of your blog. I thought the fantasy football theory was creative and hilarious. I am really writing to you to ask you if you were a teacher before you did Teach for America. I am currently a [fully] licensed teacher for elementary level and I am also finishing my year teaching abroad in Costa Rica with World Teach. I am doing and specialized volunteer bilingual program. Long and short of it, is that I have my license and a whole lot of experience and i am not quite sure about grad school yet, so what do you think the benefits of doing Teach for America would be for a already made teacher.

Thank you for your time,
[licensed teacher]

A: I wasn't a teacher before TFA--I was accepted into the program in my senior year of college. I had a degree in History, and I did a summer teaching program and other little education-related things here and there, but had no licenses or certifications to speak of. Teach for America will place you somewhere that needs quality teachers. I've continued teaching in my original region, the Rio Grande Valley (south Texas) and it has been a wonderful experience. Since you are considering grad school, that is also a reason to consider it since you will get an education award (roughly $8000 for me, probably more today) that you can put towards grad school (or loans if need be). I can't say enough about how much this program changed my life.

That being said, you have enough experience to get a job teaching anywhere without TFA's help. There are many great schools in the same areas TFA is serving (and many more they haven't reached yet) that will help the same kids. Charters are a great way to find a good school full of dedicated teachers, administrators staff and parents in areas where too many schools are failing the kids. KIPP Schools (Knowledge is Power Program) was started by TFA alumni and runs high performing charters all over the country, and depending on where you want to go there are many others like it. I'm not trying to advocate for charter schools. My point is that you have many more options to make the kind of impact you have been making in Costa Rica than even TFA can provide.

I think TFA may be frustrating for you because they'll be treating you as a brand new teacher, and they like to train you in their own way (which may run counter to your experience). What they will offer is ongoing support and professional development throughout your 2 year commitment and beyond, an education award that will help you with grad school, and placement in an area where you are most needed.

I almost forgot one more huge benefit that may be the thing that gets you to sign up--having TFA on your resume along with the other experience you have will help you get in to pretty much any grad school you want. TFA is a very selective, elite program, and grad schools just love that sort of thing. TFA has partnerships with many schools so you can apply now and defer until your commitment ends or, alternately you will have application fees waived or alumni-only scholarships available from different institutions.

If grad school is your goal, TFA has many advantages, but I would guess from your email that is just an added bonus and not the only impetus behind going for it.

FOLLOW-UP: Thank You sooooo much for taking the time out to respond to my email and so promptly. I will take the information you have shared with me when making my decision whether or not to apply to TFA.

May you have laughter in your life and love in your heart, especially for the little ones.

[licensed teacher]
Thanks to the [licensed teacher] for the inspiration for this post. Feel free to ask questions via comments or email.

Teach for America Q&A: certified in Physical Education

I've been using Google Analytics to analyze the traffic coming to the blog, and almost all of the search terms have to do with Teach for America. Also, since I am active in teacher groups on MySpace, I get more and more messages everyday from people asking for information about TFA to help them decide whether to apply or not. I wouldn't be living up to the mission of I Want to Teach Forever if I didn't share these discussions. This will be the first of many postings on this topic. Feel free to email in your own questions!
Q: hey! im will be graduating from [a university] in the fall with a masters degree in kinesiology and i am very interested in teach for america. i will be certified to teach physical education, grades k-12. do you have any info that may be helpful????
[an interested party]

A: Well, let's start at the beginning. Your advanced degree can be a benefit and drawback in TFA. Obviously your experience will help you in the classroom, and teaching at summer institute won't be as challenging as it would for someone who's never done anything like it before.

However, you may become frustrated when going through TFA's initial training process, because you were taught how to teach one way, and they will teach you their way, and the two methodologies might clash at times. Also, I can pretty much guarantee you that you won't be teaching physical education, because there is such a huge demand in the core areas (especially science, which is where you would likely end up). I've never heard of anyone being placed in a PE position--and in a middle or high school setting you would almost certainly have to teach a core subject as well as be a PE teacher [if that was indeed possible]. That last part is the reality of the teaching landscape right now, not a TFA thing. If you do join TFA, be prepared to teach something unrelated (or only [related] tangentially) to your degree.

Now that's out of the way: The application process starts with an online application. If you get through that, you are scheduled for an in person interview. I don't know how much this has changed in the past 4 years, but my experience involved going to Accenture's corporate offices in New York City and jumping through a series of hoops with a roomful of TFA hopefuls. We were given discussion topics, had private interviews with recruitment staff, and had to give a short sample lesson on more or less whatever we wanted. A few weeks later they tell you whether you have been accepted and tell you the region they will place you in if you accept. When you accept, they begin to send you materials to read to prepare you for that summer's training institute (which takes place in locations across the country).

Institute, in short, is a month of teaching summer school in one of TFA's regions while absorbing a multi-year teacher education program at the same time. It is an incredibly intense trial by fire that will make or break you. In your case, as I said before, your experience will be a great benefit, but there's no PE in summer school, and you could be teaching any subject and any grade level (which could be completely different than what you'll be teaching in the fall).

Your TFA regional staff sets up interviews and does numerous other things to get you a job ASAP after entering the program (probably even before Institute). They will be the ones setting up professional development and the rest of the support network throughout your 2 year commitment. At the end of each year, you receive an education award that can be used for paying off loans (or going to grad school, although I doubt you'll be doing that again!).

Besides this support, you are otherwise a full-time teacher employed by the school district just like everybody else at your school. TFA doesn't pay your salary.

Each region gives you help in where to look for housing and everything else you need when moving to a new area, but they don't do it for you. You'll probably make friends and decide on roommates with other corps members early on as well.
At this point I asked if [an interested party] had any more questions, since I could go on forever. I enjoy being able to share my experiences with people--I guess there is no off position on the teacher switch (thanks, Dave).

Let me put a disclaimer here for now and the future: I don't work for Teach for America. I don't plan on doing so. I have a very positive view of it and had a positive experience. The opinions expressed herein do not represent those of Teach for America, TFA-RGV, or anybody else. These are my experiences and my viewpoints, and YMMV.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

If only every teacher was like Coach Mangini

Eric Mangini, the young coach of my beloved New York Jets, is known for being a master motivator, game planner, and for bringing surprise guests to camp to help get his team ready to go. Most recently, the best receiver in NFL history and dancer extraordinaire Jerry Rice stopped by Jets camp for a little motivational speaking:
"I just believe in the value of letting players hear how successful people became successful, or how their teams became successful," Mangini said. "The ingredients are really the same, regardless of whether it's football, baseball, basketball, hockey or whether you're at Johnson & Johnson. I mean, it's all the same core characteristics."
...or whether you're in Algebra class. Rice says it best himself (from a more detailed article on
"I practiced every day like it was a game situation."

"A lot of guys really want to get to the Super Bowl, get rewarded. But there are sacrifices you have to make, a dedication to how you do everything possible for your teammates. What you're trying to do is accomplish something together. If the next guy's not doing his job, it's like there's a weak link in that chain."
I try to get my students to take all the incremental tasks as seriously as the major ones--when they do, they're successful. In short, hard work, dedication, and teamwork were essential to Rice phenomenal success. It probably didn't hurt that he had a great, enthusiastic teacher in Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who passed away last week.

I wrote about Mangini and Rice instead of the mind-numbing curriculum meeting I've been attending all week because I've written enough about professional development, and since I haven't finished the many projects I'm working on, I wanted to offer something others could actually use in the classroom.

Last year, while researching curriculum ideas, I read about a guy using fantasy football in his math class as an engaging ongoing project. It turned his class around, and it wasn't long before I purchased Fantasy Football and Mathematics and the accompanying Student Workbook.

Basically, the kids have a fantasy team just like you would find on ESPN, Yahoo! or elsewhere. Instead of somebody else calculating the scores at the end of each weekend, the students themselves do the math. They solve algebraic expressions that get increasingly harder as the season wears on, but it's one of those things where the kids don't care that it's math because it's football, and even if a student doesn't care about that, it's still a competitive game played against other students (and every student loves that!).

Along with tabulating the scores, the workbook contains numerous football-themed activities and problems that complement the meat of the idea.

I missed the boat on fully implementing this in my classroom, but when I used bits and pieces to help students decipher word problems, I had great success.

Last year I told my students that every week the Jets won, we wouldn't have any homework the following Monday. I soon had a parent ask me why her son was watching and cheering for the New York Jets (despite the fact we're in south Texas) the previous weekend. I knew then that if I could grab students' attention with a mere mention, the whole system could work wonders for those kids I was unable to motivate last year (and push the rest even farther).

I hope to implement the whole system this fall as a fun experiment, and if so I'll chronicle the ups and downs here. In the meantime, for more information go to the Fantasy Sports and Mathematics official site. There are now resource books on baseball, soccer and basketball depending on your students' interests.

Want to see this in action? Mr. Hagen's Math Class details how one class used the system in a story that aired last year on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Here's the video:

Friday, August 3, 2007

Agile Mind software: impractical for most classrooms

Today's workshop, which focused on ThinkFive's Agile Mind software, was unfortunately not as productive or useful as the TI workshops had been. Agile Mind isn't really practical for everyday use in most classrooms--unless your middle and high school students are incredibly patient, self-motivated, and reading WAY above grade level.

Created in collaboration with the University of Texas-Austin's Dana Center, Agile Mind has awesome animations covering topics from middle school on up, but the accompanying lessons are at an unreasonably high reading level and just plain wordy. My students would have a lot of trouble and get distracted from the clarity of the animations (whether they tried to actually read it or not).

In addition, if you don't have time for or access to a functioning computer lab (which is most of us, even in districts where technology is relatively well-funded), only the animations are useful as an aid in introducing, clarifying or reteaching a given topic.

If your district has this software, get an LCD projector and use the animations to supplement your teaching when appropriate.

If your district doesn't have it, I don't think it's really worth the investment. We have it in our district and only a small handful of teachers at my school actually use it, but when I argued that we should get rid of it in the face of this year's budget cuts, they not only decided to keep it, but send us to more training that doesn't solve any of the software's core problems (thereby wasting more money). This is the third workshop I've attended about this software, and I've used the animations in my classroom as I suggested above, but I still think there's better uses for our technology dollars (like on more LCD projectors).

Texas Instruments' TI-Navigator: freakin sweet!

I'm very critical of most professional development workshops (since in my experience they have been, by and large, complete wastes of time) but I'm super excited about sharing what I've learned in "Technology Integration with Texas Instruments". My introduction to the TI-Navigator system and software the last two days has been very exciting as I'm thinking about the possibilities in my classroom.

The software allows unprecedented communication and interaction between the calculators and with computers. For example, when we're looking at a multiple choice TAKS question, each student could use their calculator as a voting machine, and I could either display the results via an LCD projector or simply tally the results and send them back to the students' calculators for discussion. There are many other types of classroom response systems, but this one is better because it's integrated with the other software and functionality. The questions don't have to be multiple choice; you can send true-false or open-response questions as well.

There are also educational games for the kids to play. I did wonder out loud today why Texas Instruments hasn't developed a better view screen or more user-friendly functionality when Nintendo, Sony and other video game system manufacturers have come so far with similarly priced gaming devices (i.e. the Nintendo DS Lite or updated Sony PSP)--but the games do the best with the hardware they're given. Most of the games I played were fun, easy and definitely would succeed at teaching many basic skills. I particularly enjoyed Decimal Defender (free download, but you need the USB cable for your TI-83/84).

The teacher can also do a screen capture for every calculator hooked up to the TI-Navigator's wireless hubs. This is great because it allows the teacher to quickly see what everyone is doing, making it a great disciplinary tool, but it can also be used as a teaching tool. For example, if you were working on slope, you could ask each student to graph an equation that had positive slope, then display all of the screen caps simultaneously via an LCD projector and discuss. I would have loved this last year in Algebra I!

Through the computer software you can also save the results of quizzes and activities to student "portfolios". The software takes care of the grading, so you could actually use this to do quick 5-10 question quizzes and get instant results and ready-for-gradebook grades with little stress.

All in all, I have a lot to bring to the classroom as we start using the systems for the first time this year. The features of the system are very interactive, fun and engaging and well worth the investment if your district is considering it (and can afford it). In the first school district I taught, technology funding was spent foolishly; very little of it ever reached the classroom, and when it did, it was usually useless. Even in a poorly run district like that, however, this would be well worth the investment.

Our workshop was a version of the T3 Conferences that TI runs each summer. The full nine-day version is expensive and probably the sort of thing you send one person to attend (if any) who'll come back and teach everyone else, but the version I attended was a pretty solid introduction (and we were given the full binder of tutoring materials to help us learn the various functions anyway).

So there you go: not all professional development is a waste of time.

Just most of it.