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!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Teaching Domain and Range (with a little help from Beyonce)

There are a lot of things in math that are easy concepts to understand, but also easy to forget. Last year, my students had a lot of trouble remembering domain and range. It dawned upon me to write a song to get this idea across for two reasons: music is one of the most powerful (and neglected) learning modalities, and it was something to get my students excited about coming to class.

At that time, one of the top songs in the country was Beyonce's catchy, guitar-driven hit "Irreplaceable". I would hear this on the radio daily, and I had even learned to play it on guitar because I liked it so much. Somewhere in this time, the opening lyrics: "To the left, to the left..." jumped out at me. My students had trouble remembering that when looking at a graph, the domain was from the left to the right. "To the left" became "to the right" and honestly, the rest was easy. I made sure that the most important and basic ideas they needed to know were addressed in the lyrics:
  • domain: x-values, left to right on the graph, first number in a coordinate point, always ordered from least to greatest
  • range: y-values, up and down on the graph, second number in a coordinate point, also ordered from least to greatest
I introduced the song by asking, "How do you remember the alphabet?" Everyone starts singing the alphabet song and I say "yes, and the reason you were taught this song is not because it's a cute little song but because it is easy to remember. You learned something from this song--isn't it true that you could name me the lyrics to 'Beautiful Girls' quicker than you could explain the easiest things we did in class." This is the idea of the Domain and Range Song.

I sang and played the song on guitar by myself last year, but I wanted it to be a bit more interactive this year to make it even more memorable. Thus I put a few more phrases in boldface and after performing the song once by myself, I asked the students to sing (or at least say) the words in bold in a sing-along. Here, at last, is the now infamous song:
To the tune of “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce

To the right, to the right
To the right, to the right
Everything in the domain from the left to the right

On the graph, domain’s the x
From least to greatest, and here's what's next
I'm talking about the range--that's the y
how far up and down the graph goes at the same time
Put those in order from least to greatest too
So you can answer the questions that I gave you

Sitting in Mr. D's class, thinking bout how he's such a fool,
How we'll never ever forget how to do
domain and range yeah

You must now know domain, you must now know the range
I can help you understand in a minute
Matter fact, you’ll pass the test in a minute, baby

You must now know domain, you must now know the range
I can help you understand for tomorrow
So don’t you ever for a second ever forget, domain and range!

So when you have a coordinate point
A pair of (x, y), just remember this
Baby the first number’s the domain,
The second number’s the range
Cause the truth of the matter is… domain and range are so is easy!

Just like last year, students apparently did make a video of my performance using their contraband technology. They tell me they have posted it on YouTube and MySpace, but in two years I've never actually seen it online. I'd love to, actually, so I could send it to friends and family and have them wonder whether I've gone off the deep end or not. Until then, maybe you can use this song or create something similar to both jump start your classroom and enhance student learning. Good luck!!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Arrested Development: How TI teaches the TI-Navigator without really trying

Is it too much to ask that TI presenters actually know how to use TI equipment and have it fully functioning and prepared before we start a workshop? It’s their job! School districts across the Valley are paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for these trainings and expect to be overwhelmed with the shear amount of fun, engaging TI-Navigator activities I can do with my students.

Yet we spent three hours Friday morning updating the operating system on the TI-84 Plus Silver calculators because TI-Navigator needs the latest operating system to run. The network hubs weren’t fully charged. There weren’t enough calculator-to-computer USB cables. Our presenter couldn’t even get her TI-issued laptop to connect to the Internet without a technician coming in to do it for her! After lunch on both days, we were given the rest of the day to peruse the TI website and find activities we can use in class (read: we do the work that the presenter is being paid to Saturday, one of my colleagues was in a different room where the Navigator system wouldn’t work at all—they were given “free time” all day!

Education consultants are smart only in the sense that they realized they could make more money being a lousy teacher for other teachers than being a lousy teacher for students. The term “consultant” makes me cringe because of the implications it carries—money being given to opportunistic former teachers and their enablers (corporations), with very little trickle down to the classroom.

The problem is that there’s very little accountability for most presenters. As long as they convince teachers that they’ve given them something useful (thick binders or packets with a colorful cover page are a good start), be overly nice to everyone, and say things like “I know we told you we were getting out at 3:30pm, but I’m going to let you go early today” before the end of the session, they’ll get a positive evaluation from almost all attendees. Teachers themselves won’t stand up and complain about useless workshops because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of the administration and they’re often content if they’re getting some sort of credit (professional development hours, stipends, etc).

Thus there is a self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers don’t expect much, presenters don’t present much, and the administration happily schedules them year after year (or worse, month after month).

That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything or don’t have anything useful to share here (besides constructive criticism of professional development opportunities). Activity Center, software that comes with the Navigator system, was the focus of our second day of training. There is a graph mirroring the calculator’s graph where students can:

  • Move a cursor around the screen to identify quadrants or coordinate points
  • Model a linear relationship – Give each student a number, and have them move their cursor so that the x-coordinate is their number and the y is half that number and introduce slope. Similarly, you could then have them move to their x-coordinate for their special number with a y that is 3 less than their number to introduce y-intercept.
  • Create any kind of graph – Keeping with the special number idea, you can have students create a series of linear equations with gradually increasing slopes and y-intercepts or quadratic equations that get wider and wider or move up and down the y-axis (and face up or down as well).
  • Make connections to geometry – You can place an image as the background of your y-axis and have students try to figure out lines to match parts of the image. Alternately you can use the axes to help figure out the ratio of two items in a picture.

TI-Navigator has some excellent features that will definitely be engaging and help my students understand certain concepts better. Unfortunately, my presenter had to take this too far when she kept repeating that “research is showing test scores going up all across the country when TI-Navigator is used” and that we needed to use this technology every single day. Both of these statements are ridiculous.

Research has shown time and time again that the number one predictor of student success is teacher quality, not more money and more technology. Often districts that spend more money per student are the lowest performing on standardized tests. As for the need to use this every single day, you can’t use any method every day. Like any other engaging method, the novelty is lost after too much use. That’s not to say this shouldn’t be something teachers know how to use and use regularly, just not daily.

Considering I still have several more days of TI-centered training, I certainly hope their presenters figure out how to use the technology they’re selling us.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Using the Newspaper in Algebra I

It’s hard to get students to want to read and even harder to get them to enjoy reading. Two years ago, while teaching at an alternative school here in the Rio Grande Valley, I was introduced to the idea of a DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) program. We didn’t have a large selection of books, but even if we had, books of any length are intimidating to students who are reading well below grade level. So we also had newspapers delivered through the Newspapers in Education program two days a week. I noticed immediately that even the reluctant readers wanted to read on “newspaper day”, so I started to buy newspapers so we would have them every day. Stories in the paper led to many great discussions and, more importantly, instilled the idea that reading could be fun and interesting.

Last year, when I began teaching 9th graders at my current school, I ran into the same reluctance to read during our DEAR-style class. I again reached into my wallet to provide newspapers every day and saw a big improvement.

I realized as the papers began to pile up (there’s no recycling program at school) that I should maximize the use of these resources—like most things in life, the newspaper is full of practical applications of mathematics. As we approached May and I needed an engaging way to review for end-of-year exams, I turned to the newspaper:
  • Mean, median and mode – Use the weather page and find the mean, median and mode of high temperatures for the cities listed on the regional map.
  • Using formulas – Convert the day’s high temperature in Fahrenheit to Celsius using the formula C = (5/9)(F - 32).
  • Inequalities – To remind you which sign means less than and greater than, find the best cars possible for <> 100,000 miles.
  • Interpreting tables and graphs – Find any informational graph or table and write an appropriate word problem that would require a student to use the information in the graph to answer the question.
  • Writing functions – Look up prices for jeans and for shirts you want. Write a function for the total cost C for buying j jeans and s shirts.
  • Solving a word problem – Find a help wanted ad that includes a yearly salary, and figure out how much per month someone would make in that position after taxes.
We couldn’t cover everything on the exam, but as a supplement to other reviews, this helped students a lot and they enjoyed using the paper to help in class.

This year I have used the newspaper to help start our Fantasy Football and Mathematics project and to post examples from the paper on a “Math in the Real World” bulletin board. Two weeks ago we used the paper to provide real-life examples of rate, ratio and proportion problems. The example activity below refers to sections of my local paper that appear daily, so that it didn’t matter which day’s paper they used as long as they had all the sections needed. We had discussed a problem about rent-to-own businesses and how they take advantage of low-income communities as a real-life example of a rate problem, and I put a similar problem on the weekly quiz (also included below).

This summer I went to a Newspapers in Education training and received free papers sponsored by my local newspaper just for attending, which saved me hundreds of dollars this year. To get newspapers for your classroom, contact the education coordinator at your local paper. Even if you can’t get a sponsor, the price of ordering through the newspaper is a fraction of the newsstand price. For more information on the NIE program, visit their website.

Stay tuned for more ideas for integrating the newspaper into Algebra 1!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Teach for America Q&A: Summer Institute

Each summer, thousands of talented people either just out of school or embarking on a new path travel to Teach for America's Summer Institutes in New York, Houston, LA and elsewhere to get a crash course in teaching. They teach summer school while taking classes, attending seminars, meeting with advisers and documenting every facet of what they are doing. A lot of this time period, due to the tidal wave of information and new experiences that were coming over me at that time (not to mention it's now been over 4 years), is a blur. I remember emotions and my state of mind, anecdotes of triumphs and tribulations, and the end result (that I still didn't know what I was doing). I knew this was going to happen, and I knew this would be an important time in my life, and so I kept as many documents and records of that time as I could. Looking back at what I kept from the summer of 2003, brings back vivid memories of the roller coaster ride that was Institute.

Before we had any students, we had a week of preparation at the school we would be teaching at. "The first day was hectic," I wrote to my mom. "[T]hey had us on a tight schedule, plus I missed the bus this morning and got lost while driving there. It was not a good start. I haven't heard anything about the job yet either. I'll let you know what happens as soon as I know!" Unlike most of my fellow teachers-in-training, I did not have a job waiting for me in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, most corps members have a job well before Institute starts, sometimes even before they move to their region. I didn't have a job until late July, a week after returning to the RGV from Houston. This meant I had to wait to get housing until the last minute, driving my already-high stress level through the roof.

I was assigned a 6th grade social studies class, which in Texas is world civilizations and cultures. In an email just before classes started to my ex-girlfriend, I wrote:
My first two days are all planned out. Tomorrow I am doing a lesson about introducing the concept of culture through thinking about the differences between each other. Then tomorrow we'll do the same kind of thinking by comparing and contrasting two different countries. I'm starting to think about Wednesday through Friday now (since the draft lesson plans are due tomorrow night) but I'd like to get a better idea of where the kids are and I won't know that until I have them do their activities tomorrow.
It's funny to read this now; I still wait to get an idea of where the kids are before planning the next lesson, changing things on the fly when necessary.
As classes began I got into a routine of long days and hard work, as I described to a friend from home about two weeks into teaching:
Teaching has been a series of ups and downs but I think I am improving. Basically we are at school from 7am-4pm and have workshops and other meetings each evening. Then of course there's lesson plans, progress reports, making copies and
so forth, and all in all things are busy pretty much all week.
I wasn't doing a great job the first few weeks of Institute. In fact, I was almost put on the CMIP (Corps Member Improvement Plan), which basically means you need to get your shit together before you are kicked out of Teach for America. It is the scarlet letter of Institute, the worst thing they can do short of outright asking you to leave. I know exactly why I was so close: I had never worked so hard and failed in my life. I was frustrated, and I took it out on my
adviser and the other people around me. Luckily I pulled myself back from the verge and as the last week of Institute concluded, I felt like I was just hitting my stride. I even wrote a prospective speech for the closing ceremonies, the bulk of which was this email sent to a friend at home in middle of Institute:
This whole month has been a series of highs and lows. I'm afraid though that what I think are highs don't really exist and I'm just kind of taking things that aren't anything and turning them into something I can hold on to.

What I'm most worried about is not my personal failings at the job so far but that I'm hurting, or at the very least not benefiting, these students that need my help. I've been very upset about that, even through all of the issues I've had trying to control the class, because I feel that ultimately their misbehavior is my fault. I know this because every bad day I've had, I've told the other teacher in my collaborative group about it, and he always comes back and tells me they were fine for him. I see it every time I've seen him in the classroom, he takes care of business, and they obey. I tried to really assert myself today, and so I have 7 kids with lunch detention and 3 calls to parents. One of the phone numbers didn't work at all, the other two I had to ask my friend who speaks Spanish fluently to call for me. I have two parents coming in later this week to talk to me, so I guess that is a step in the right direction.

Yesterday was just insane, and I can't believe I let it happen. We--or rather I--was trying to have them read a great article from the local newspaper about this Pakistani family that recently immigrated and how American culture has influenced their cultural values, but they were completely not into it. Kids were carrying on conversations, playing around, getting up and walking around the room, crumpling up paper just to throw it around... until I just looked up from reading along when one of the kids was reading aloud and see this chaos and I yell "everybody STOP!" and then I had to tell three different kids to sit down and not get up again! I nearly lost it. I tried to go back to what I was doing, but all I could think about is how angry I was.

The main problem that I've identified through a lot of reflection is that I'm just not following through on consequences. I wasn't doing a good job of keeping track of things, was ignoring seemingly "little" things, and basically letting them get away with anything with no consequences. I know why I have a problem with this: there is nothing I hate more than having to deal with that sort of thing. I think I did a good job today, and even though things didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked, I felt better because I dealt with the problems. It's like any other nagging problem, if you don't deal with it you are completely consumed by it.

Then I have been concerned about where my lessons themselves were going, although I've been getting generally positive feedback all along about that thing. But I still feel kind of lost because the topic they gave me was such a vague, abstract concept that I had trouble breaking down into simpler steps. I am trying to focus everything now on making sure my students understand what culture is, what cultural traits are and how they affect each other, how culture spreads and affects other cultures, and so on.

We have started our big final project where they are each working on a country of their choice and creating a sort-of exhibit for a Museum of Culture. They are breaking down their country's culture into four major traits: languages, religions, foods and holidays/celebrations. For each part they'll identify the trait, explain it, give some visual representation of it, and so on. I think this will help cement the whole concept in their minds, but I'm just not sure.

The only thing that I want to remember from this week is one of those things I want to think is great and wonderful and positive but for a number of reasons can't completely accent. One of my students, Quention, asked me where I would be teaching in the fall, and I told him I would be in the valley and not Houston. He said he wanted to move down there just to be in my class. Then later that day when he got his progress report, which was very positive, he was elated and ran over and hugged me. I felt really great about it.
In my speech I went on to write about how I joked with my fellow corps members that I was going to write a book called "The Kids are Running the Classroom" and how when asked for a word to describe my day I explained that it was similar to what would have happened if all of the doomsday scenarios about Y2K had come true. Then and now I doubted my ability to ever become a great teacher.

Thinking about this time in my life reminds me of how far I have come yet how little I have learned. Still, I see one constant: I have never, and will never stop trying to become that great teacher I want to be. That is the great lesson I learned at Institute.