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!