Thursday, January 31, 2008

I just published my first book: Ten Cheap Lessons!!

I have been known to make grand declarations of things I plan on doing, only to do just the opposite a short time later. After months of excuses and stalling, I made a new year's resolution to sit down and write a book. I had the idea for a teacher resource book a long time ago, and I thought it would be the easier of the two planned books I wanted to do (the other being a memoir of my time here in the RGV). It would prove to me (and future publishers) that I was up to the task, and was something I wanted to do anyway. When I wrote out self-imposed deadlines for the month of January, I didn't know if I would follow through. Indeed, I almost gave up in the first week, when the crushing exhaustion of going back to school after winter break was making an already monumental task seemingly impossible.

Yet I persevered, and the product of my months of work is Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom. It is available now, for about $12 for the paperback or $6 to download immediately. I have put my heart and soul into this, and I can't tell you what it would mean to me to know that my book could help me have a far-reaching effect on the education of children I've never met.

Regular readers of I Want to Teach Forever will see some ideas originally published here, as well as many I've been saving for Ten Cheap Lessons. I hope that the book and the website grow together, so that I can have the opportunity to meet more great teachers and collaborate on great new ideas with them. If you read the book and would be interested in having me present a workshop or speak at a conference, please email me, as I would love the opportunity. You know I'll do a good job--I couldn't live with myself if I didn't provide quality professional development.

Thank you to everyone who visits this website, and for all of the positive feedback I've gotten over the past six months. Stay tuned to for updates and opportunities to learn more about it. Enjoy:

Monday, January 28, 2008

Reading and Writing in Math Through Journals

Every summer when I'm planning for the new year, I try to incorporate more reading and writing into my math classroom. There's many obvious reasons to do this--the TAKS, our state standardized test, is heavy on word problems that require high level reading comprehension. One of the easiest and most important to implement are journals. These are not just for the English classroom, since they require students to think, explain, and make connections to the material--all essential skills not only for testing but for higher levels of math.

You can use these as "Do Now" activities, exit slips, or short take-home assessments. If you need to provide content-area writing samples for state ELL assessment programs or student portfolios, this is a painless way to collect them. Here are some examples I've used, grouped by purpose:

Explaining how to do problems or defining vocabulary:
  1. Explain the rules we learned this week for solving equations in your own words.
  2. How do you make a table of x and y values into a function? Give at least one way.
  3. Explain the difference between a dependent and independent variable.
  4. Pick one word off the Word Wall and explain what it is (or give an example).
Explaining what they learned or are still confused about:
  1. What questions do you still have about this unit?
  2. What did you learn in Algebra this week? How can you do better next week?
Reflecting on their work ethic and behavior:
  1. Name at least one thing you need to do better in Algebra I this six weeks. Explain why.
  2. What happens if you fail Algebra this year? How many credits do you need to pass to 10th grade?
  3. What would it take to get you motivated to do your work and pass the TAKS? If you are already motivated, how do you stay that way?
  4. How did I do this week in math class? What did I do well? What do I need to improve upon?
Making connections and using higher order thinking:
  1. What's the good part about using graphing calculators for our work? What's the down side?
  2. List all the ways you use math while you're NOT at school.
  3. What do you think is the hardest thing to do in math? Why?
Adjust the length depending on your needs and time limitations. Many of these questions can be well answered in a paragraph or two, some require a bit more exploration. Use your discretion.

Be sure to discuss the topics as a whole group, especially to accommodate those who may be better at expressing themselves out loud. Then, you can encourage and guide those students at how to put their good ideas into writing. It might seem daunting, but every second you spend working on literacy is just as valuable as any content you teach.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lesson Idea: Hands-On Volume and Surface Area

Year after year, the students at my campus have trouble with Objective 8, which deals with basic geometry, measurement and similarity. Students have to find measurements, surface area and volume for various 3D shapes and their nets, and then apply those skills in faux real life situations.

I'm still not sure what it is about this that confounds students so much, but it could be any number of things: Too many formulas (and thus variables)? Lack of practice and training in visualizing drawings in 3D or putting together and taking apart nets of objects? Too abstract (not enough concrete, real life examples)? I think it's a mix of all these things, along with their poor preparation in even the most basic of mathematic concepts (times tables, anyone?).

So the first thing we did this year was to deconstruct actual objects, draw their nets and measure their dimensions before even thinking about formulas and advanced problems. I tried to use products that I could pull apart or unfolds and then put back together again:
  • Cylinder: For volume and total surface area, I used a Pringles can, emptied and cut vertically and 2/3 of the way around the circumference of the base (so it stays attached). I taped the plastic top to the box to be the top or bottom (depending on your perspective). It was something the kids could unroll and roll up again, and that I could refer to repeatedly throughout the unit. The label of any soup can is a clear example of lateral surface area if you need it.
  • Rectangular box: I used a box that had some extra tabs that made it easy to view flat or in 3D, but any rectangular box that you can cut so that the net is easy to see is good. I told students that when I saw a problem with a tall, skinny box, I thought of a cereal box. While I didn't use one, it would be another good example to cut and show. I would also suggest cutting a box that is a common sight in the room (tissue box, printer paper box, etc) which is easiest for you to get and easy for students to use as a reference.
  • Triangular prism: Toblerone, the oddly-shaped Swiss chocolate bar, is one of the few triangular-shaped retail boxes that is both widely available and immediately recognizable. I had two boxes, one taped together (after I removed the chocolate to avoid any distractions) and another cut to form a easy-to-sketch net. A large 3-ring binder is another potential example hiding in your classroom.
I couldn't think of or find any common items in cone, pyramid or cube-shaped boxes, so I used a kit of durable plastic models borrowed from my co-chair. These were adequate, but since they couldn't be flattened out, it forced students to rely solely on their imagination (for better or worse).

Before we started this unit, we had worked on orthographic (top, side and front) views of 3D objects and drawings. On our state test these problems usually have stacked cubes in various arrangements, so I used Jenga blocks and a document camera to demonstrate what each view would look like. We did a lot of predicting, verifying, and modeling of 3D shapes from different perspectives, which made the next unit a bit easier.

On the first day of this unit, students sketched nets, measured the dimensions (using the rulers on my state's TAKS math formula chart) and labeled the drawings of each of the shapes listed above. They worked in groups to help each other work efficiently. I didn't tell them what exactly to measure, just to measure what they thought would be important and later, we would use these to find surface area and volume. I did tell them to focus on trying to visualize these shapes, because it was a skill needed for every word problem--figuring out what exactly was being described so that we could then figure out what to do.

The next step was creating a "better" version of the state formula chart, because the chart was far too generalized. This would, I explained, make applying these formulas a lot easier.

For example, the volume of every prism and cylinder is V = Bh, where B is the area of the base, which the student then has to figure out and then look up, making what is supposed to be an aid into more work on an already intense test. Things get quite hairy when they have to find the volume and surface area of other shapes. So we made our better chart more explicit; for example; the volume of a cylinder is πr2h and the surface area of a rectangular prism is 2(lw + lh + hw). We practiced on some nets we had drawn as a Do Now problem to bring the second lesson full circle.

Finally, we went back to the six nets and their measurements from the first day, and completed the volume and surface area of each one. With all of the knowledge built up over the previous days, this was a piece of cake for the vast majority of my students.

We wrapped up the week by working on challenging test prep questions that required a lot of visualization, sketching and multiple steps to complete. Students had to apply everything we had done to complete the problems, which we corrected, analyzed and reviewed afterwards.

So as tomorrow's assessment on this half of the objective looms (the other half deals with similarity and proportional change in these figures), I'm feeling confident in how my students will perform. I still worry, however, that this knowledge will quickly be replaced by other short term knowledge, so I am planning a project where students will once again be forced to apply all of these skills, finding their own objects to "deconstruct" (sketching nets, completing measurements, calculating volume and surface area, etc). I don't see much value in doing the same exact thing we did in class, but perhaps that practice done completely independently will be more memorable.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

TI Training: Our long regional nightmare is over

I've spent the last two days at the Region One Education Service Center, the professional development resource provided by the state, at a T-STEM conference focused mostly on training from Texas Instruments. I really like the TI-Navigator system, but for the most part these have been some of the most excruciatingly painful trainings of my career.

Friday was an awful rerun of the last few days I've been there. Most of the TI workshops are the same, as if they are trained by telemarketers and motivational speakers about how to distract people long enough to take their money.

Standard TI Workshop Agenda
  1. You help the instructor collect a bunch of data, and they graph the points.
  2. The instructor has you write and submit a linear or quadratic equation.
  3. The graphs are shown and they match the data points or copies a picture.
  4. Everyone is impressed!
  5. The instructor uses Quick Poll (the Navigator's instant feedback feature) to send stupid questions that solicit stupid answers, presumably to demonstrate to us how it will work in our real classroom.
  6. At the end of the day, teachers are pointed to the TI Education website and told to find lessons and calculator programs to download on their own (in other words, doing the work TI is being paid to do for us).
Recently, my district decided that we hadn't flushed enough math department money down the toilet and purchased ANOTHER guaranteed-to-work, solution-to-all-our-problems, superfun-engaging-the kids will love it!-hands-on-ready-to-use curriculum program called SureScore. Of course, we're just getting this stuff in January, when we're already overwhelmed with everything, but that's another story.

I learned that SureScore tried to integrate their paper materials with the TI-Navigator, so that students could complete their activities through the system. The problem is, it doesn't actually work! It's like no one at SureScore even owns a TI calculator. I picked a random activity and completed the entire exercise on my calculator. First off, it was difficult to type in the answers, because the calculator would automatically switch back and forth between typing letters and numbers, which would be crippling if trying to use it with my students. Despite this, I was pretty sure I had done everything correctly, but when I scored it, I had only gotten 23% right.

When I compared my answers to the "correct" answers, I realized the multitude of problems: For any answer that had a thousands place or higher, the "correct" answer required a comma. Since my answers had no commas, each one was marked wrong. Some answers were expressions like "170 + x", but because I didn't put spaces between the 170, plus sign, and x, it was marked wrong (not to mention that x + 170 would have also been marked wrong).

Worst of all, there were some answers that were simplified square roots (like 2√2). Once again I had the answer correct, but I had typed it as 2√(2), because that is the only way to type a square root symbol on a TI-83/84 calculator. In other words, it is impossible to get the correct answer! If I had this many problems on just one randomly picked set of questions, imagine how difficult this would be for my students. What a waste of time and money.

Today was slightly better. I saw one project which seems like fun, called the Barbie Bungee, in which Barbie dolls are tied to rubber band bungee cords and you record the number of rubber bands (independent variable) and the maximum distance she falls (dependent variable). When you plot the data, it is a linear relationship, and students create an equation and make and test predictions for different distances. In the end it's another way to go about making a linear equation, but one that's actually exciting.

I also went to a session on paper folding, which was really exciting because of the presenter and the fascinating problem he presented (similar to this). It would be very exciting for math junkies, but was simply too difficult and time consuming for my Algebra I students. I could do it in an AP Geometry or Calc class. I also was exposed to Cabri Jr, a geometry calculator program which is available for free on TI's Education website. It is fairly intuitive and I'll figure out how to use it in the classroom.

There was a few hours of the Standard TI Workshop Agenda described above, but otherwise I am happy to report I got something out of the last day. I just wish the preceding eight days had been as helpful.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mid-Year Student Surveys

The last few days of the fall semester were pretty rough. My students by and large bombed the semester exam, which I had thought was rather easy. The semester had went so well, and all indications were that the students were learning and retaining the information. It tore my well-constructed fantasy world to shreds, and I didn't know what else to say to my students to motivate them to do better.

I don't really yell, and I didn't this time. I usually speak to my students very plainly and honestly, from the heart, and more often than not they respond positively. This time, I told them I was so dejected that I wasn't sure I would even bother coming back after winter break, because it was my responsibility that they had failed so badly. Maybe I'm just not a good teacher, I told them.

There was no chance of me quitting, of course, but I didn't need to do any acting; I was really as upset as I appeared to be, and while I wasn't going to leave, I didn't feel like a very good teacher at all. I looked forward to the spring semester as a chance to prove to myself that I was, and that my students would live up to my expectations.

So as I do every year at the start of the spring semester, I gave my students a survey. Teach for America taught me to constantly reflect on my teaching and then make necessary changes to improve what I'm doing. Thus every so often I stop and ask them to tell me what's working and what's not, so I can keep doing good things and fix the bad things. I make the survey anonymous to ensure honesty.

I've been reading the results and I learned a lot about my students and myself as I do each year. Below you'll find the questions I posed, along with the student comments I found most interesting and revealing.

As usual, a lot of research and adaptation went into creating this document, so thank you to the wonderful teachers out there that inspired this survey. An editable copy is available here via Google Docs.

Dear Students,

You can help me become a better teacher by responding honestly to the sentences below. Write as much (or as little) as you want. Thank you!!!
- Mr. D

The one thing we did in class that helped me learn the most was…
"The study guide book" This was a common answer, and surprisingly I haven't posted it on the website yet. Keep an eye out for it.
"the basketball game. That made me think faster & it also made it easy to learn."
"small projects such as the one for the dependent & independent variables."
"when you explain it to me 3 or 4 times."
"the word wall"
The one thing we did that did NOT help me learn was…
"the fantasy football it doesn't help me" It didn't help anybody!
"when you just talk and talk about the same question for hours then you change to another question you confuse me"
If I could change one thing about this class that would help me learn better, I would…
"move my seat"
"take out the students that cheat and don't want to learn"
"ask the students that are missbehaving to live [sic] the class"
Mr. D could make math more interesting and exciting to me if he…
"actually looked interested & exciting about teaching us"
"would sometimes be a little happier"
Mr. D can show me he cares about me as a person by…
"Because I'm a big trouble to handle with and he just say to stay calm he almost never yelles [sic] and if he does its just a little"
"talking to me honestly."
"getting after me if I am not listening or I didn't pass"
I hate it when Mr. D says…
"when he gets frustrated!"
"that something is due tomorrow."
"keep talking & never gets to the point"
"gets mad and forgets we are human being he doesn't teach anything when he's mad."
"that he is not a good teacher"
"gets sad... it makes me sad!"
One thing Mr. D should do more is…
"seem more excited"
"laugh more"
"believe in his self [sic] and us more, and say 'good afternoon' when we come into the class" I thought I always did, but I guess I'll do it more.
Additional comments and suggestions:
"You can never force somebody to learn just work with who really wants to ask them or tell them to ask you for help and focus on them don't waste your time !!! :) U can do it if they really put an effort"
"You are a good teacher the one that needs to change is me. :("
"Mr. D you are a good teacher. I think what the problem is that students don't pay attention."
"Mr. D don't worry you are a good teacher to all of the class and it is not your fault we don't learn."
"Mr. D you have helped me improve a lot on my math skills and I'm thankful for having you as a teacher. I really didn't have anything bad to say about this class. Thanks for being a great teacher."
"Mr. D I wanted to say thanks for not living [sic] us cuz mayb [sic] to be honest there wouldn't be a nicer + more caring math teacher!! thanks"
"Thank you for being a great teacher even though people think you are not but you are thanks to you I get good grades every six weeks and I thank God he gave you math talent!!!"
"Please Mr. D don't get sad because it makes me remember so bad day's when I was little my mom kicked me out of my house and I was living in the streets and bad people did some bad things to me!"
That last one was the scariest and saddest thing I've ever been told by a student--and I've heard some awful things over the years. That particular student did put their name on the survey and rest assured I am addressing it.

What I learned from this is that what I said before winter break really did resonate with my students. I already knew that my usually serious demeanor is a put off for some students, and it's something I'm always working on. Most importantly, I'd be lying if I didn't say that many of the comments reminded me just why I'm in this thing for the long haul.

I hope if you use this survey you get some great insights of your own.

Friday, January 4, 2008

I Want to Teach Forever presents: The Best of 2007

I love this time of year, because this is the time for annual "best of" lists. I can't get enough of lists of the best music, best films, and most importantly VH1's recap of the Best Year Ever. I always learn about what I missed and should seek out, which makes for a better following year.

Keeping with this idea (while it is, admittedly, already well into 2008), I decided to compile the five best posts of 2007 as picked by you, the visitor. There wasn't any voting process, I just went by the most viewed and searched for posts. Without any further ado:

I Want to Teach Forever presents: The Best of 2007

5. Project Idea: Independent vs. Dependent Variables - Here I introduced the one-page poster idea which you'll see again as we cover parent functions and quadratic equations this month.

4. Lesson Idea: Proportions and Ratios using Statues and Action Figures - I like the idea of bringing abstract ideas to life, and this was one of the most successful activities we did this semester.

3. Every professional development workshop you've ever attended - Last summer was excruciating in terms of PD, and I think this just about sums up the frustration so many of us feel when we don't get the quality we deserve. Ironically, this particular workshop provided the free time to create the most popular lesson plan I posted this year.

2. First Day of School: sample student surveys, parent letters and more - This may not be that helpful for you anymore, except that for some of you reading this, you may be planning to start all over with your kids this semester. Stay tuned for ideas to get 2008 off to the best possible start!

1. Sample 5e Lesson Plan: a Card Game for Combining Like Terms - Many of you searched for "5e lesson plan" and similar keywords, presumably because you were stuck in the same kind of bogus PD as I was last summer, looking for examples to use as a framework or as is. In either case, I am greatly humbled and flattered by how many of you found out about this blog through this one idea. I am glad I compiled this list because it also gives all of you looking for that idea to visit both my follow-up article on what happened when we first played Like Terms in class, and a revised, simplified version of the game that fixes the problems that arose and should be considerably easier to use.

BONUS! Mr. D's favorite post of the year! Of all the things I have posted here, this inspirational story, entitled Why would I want to teach forever? from my year teaching at an alternative school will have a hard time ever being supplanted as my favorite moment as a teacher. I hope you have a similar story of your own already, or some day soon.