Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Math in the Real World Project

Early last year, when I first started teaching Algebra I, it was clear to me that my students didn't see the value of what we were doing. One reason was the apparent lack of real world applications for our often tedious work. It reminded me of being in college and discussing with my fellow history majors what exactly we could do with our degree besides turn around and teach it to someone else. So I set out to create a project that would prove to my reluctant mathematicians that the motto of the CBS drama Numb3rs was true: We All Use Math Every Day.

We needed to break out of our classroom routine, so I thought an online research project on jobs that require math skills would serve that purpose as well. I didn't realize how easy it would be to create a compelling project until I went to, searched for keyword algebra, and had to sort through hundreds of results. I was impressed by the range of careers and employers. There were a lot of teaching jobs among the results, however, which is the last thing I wanted my students to focus on.

So I asked my students to find 10 non-teaching jobs that required math skills. I gave them 5 job search engines to use:
  1. Monster
  2. Yahoo! HotJobs
  3. CareerBuilder
  4. Dice
I told them to search only for "algebra" or "math". I created a graphic organizer for students to record the information they found, especially what the job entailed and what math skills were required. I included a set of reflection questions at the end of the project, to hammer home the main ideas:
  1. List some ways you could find out more information about jobs you were interested in.
  2. Which job did you find the most interesting? Explain why.
  3. What do you think is the most important thing you learned through this project?
  4. Is there anything you think you now want to know more about based on this project?
I enjoyed reading answers along the lines of "I didn't know that so many jobs need math skills!" and "I didn't know you needed math to do..." whatever career they were interested in.

This year, I didn't get the same "why do we need to know this?" feeling from my students, so I held off on this project until the end of the year. The project remains mostly intact, with a few key changes:
  • Removed Monster from the list of websites (too slow, too many requests to register when searching) and replaced it with Indeed, a job metasearch engine.
  • Added a space in the graphic organizer for Degree Required. I know that many students failed to realize that needing math skills didn't necessarily mean graduating from college with a math-related degree.
  • Added one more question to the Reflection Questions: What was the most surprising or unexpected job you found in your search results?
  • Encouraged students to seek jobs in a career they were interested in, instead of jobs located in or near our state (I think the former is far more relevant to them than the latter).
This project requires about two 45-55 minute periods in a computer lab or library with internet access. You could reduce the number of jobs you ask students to find to reduce the amount of time required, but requiring 10 jobs forces students to search more and discover a wider range of careers.

Downloads: original version, 2008 updated version

This project and many others are my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom. Click the Ten Cheap Lessons tag for more posts.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The TAKS scores are here: Victory!

After a seemingly endless wait, our TAKS scores arrived last week. My principal seemed to skip into my room as soon as the first trickle of information came in: our overall percentage for 9th grade math was over 50%, a clear improvement over last year. Our 10th grade scores had surpassed 60%. This was the only information she had, much to the chagrin of the Pre-AP class I had at the time, but it came with the promise of more good news to come.

After the news of the overall scores, we soon received another report which listed all of the students who tested, but only shows a mere YES or NO as to whether they passed, failed, or achieved "commended performance". I received this information during the last period of the day, and my students probably would have burned me at the stake if I didn't give them this very limited information immediately. To be honest, I couldn't really do anything else other than look up their results either, because I had been waiting for almost 3 weeks. That class did extraordinarily well, and after school I couldn't wait to pore over the results.

The final tally: 52% of my students passed the test. While you may see this number and wonder why the jubilation, you have to understand the context:
  • We beat the campus: Overall, 51% of the 9th graders passed the math test at my school.
  • We beat the district: Our campus had the highest scores of the 3 high schools in our district in every subject, math included.
  • We beat history: Last year, only 45% of my students passed the test (48% overall in the 9th grade).
On the other hand, that kind of passing rate also means a lot of disappointed students who tried their best but didn't pass. I had one student run out of the room in tears, who returned later and told me that they were upset because thought they had let me down. I asked this student, "Did you try your best?" "Well, yeah..." they said. "Then I'm proud of you," I responded, "because that's all I've ever asked of you."

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Motivational Experiment: Reflections on a Mohawk

Read more about this experiment: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3

After I cut off my mohawk, I wondered whether I should write off the entire experiment as a failure. On that first hawkless day, I made it a point to not say anything about it. I have done a lot of speechifying to my students throughout the year, as I always have, but I thought this time I would let my actions speak for themselves. After all, I had explained why I had the mohawk in the first place, so of course my students knew why I cut it off, right?

Yet throughout that day, T-minus three days until our standardized test, I was repeatedly asked, "Sir, why did you shave it off?" The question was always asked with an equal mix of sincerity and bewilderment, indicating it was not a rhetorical question. Each time, I changed the subject.

The next day, in the midst of 9th grade social studies benchmarks and 10th grade math testing, my students still found time to ask the same question. Seeing no easy out, I crafted this response: "If you don't understand why I shaved it off, then you don't really understand why I had it in the first place." I began to wonder, what if everybody had missed the point? What if all the progress we had made was simply a figment of my imagination?

So on our last day before the test, we started class with a journal: "Do you understand why Mr. D had a mohawk in the first place? Why did he shave it off?" Again, I avoided any speechifying, saying only that I wanted an honest response to the question, not for a grade, but because I needed to know. These are some of their responses.
Mr. D had a mohawk to get our attention. To give us a reason to work, since apparently no one wants to. Though, there was something to it. If people kept misbehaving, he was going to shave it off. And so he did. It was a sacrifice he was willing to do to get us to learn. In my opinion, some students do not deserve to be in his class.

I think Mr. D had a mohawk to try to encourage us to pass but some of "us" and I know I am one of them, didn't follow his expectations. Since Mr. D shaved his mohawk I've felt some negativity when I saw him, but I really think he expected a lot from us and we should have been good to him because he might be the best Algebra teacher we ever have. I will pass the Math Taks to show Mr. D that I am actually smart.

Mr. D had the mohawk to try and grasp our attention so we could focus more on what he was trying to teach us. He shaved it off because we weren't paying attention to him with or without it so he just shaved it because he didn't deserve to be maken fun of or even give us the satisfaction of it, for our humor.

Because he want that is student could put more attention cause he want that we could pass the TAKS Test cause he wand all is student to pass the test that why but his student maybe didn't put attention to him that why Mr. D shave it off the only think Mr. D want for us is that we could learn and pass the TAKS Test cause he cares about is students.

Yes I now because we did not make are best on are work and we did very bad in are work in class but I very like it how he had it but it was my falt why he shave it of because I didn't do my work in class and I very sorry about that so Mr. D can you forgive me and I promise I will try my best in the math test OK I will do what I know and I hope I do past so I can go to 10th grade and be a shopmoro. And I will always remember you Mr. D. I hope all your students for next year lesien to you but make Math fun and play with the problems and make them larned more OK! Sorry for not be on tacks in your class!

My understanding Mr. D did the mohawk so we can pay attention and get ready for taks. And really it work since he did the mohawk because everybody will start looking at him and stare. And now he shave it off because our Taks test is tomorrow and now it doesnt matter because we should learn already and its time for taks.

Mr. D you tried to motivate us by trying to do something silly like cutting your hair. To make us see that you actually care and will do anything so we can learn. Some people took it as a joke and didnt care, but it means a lot to me that you actually tried to do something about our class. Sorry if our class didnt do what you expected in return. I just wish people werent so selfish and stopped talking or making dumb comments. If that was the reason you cut it off. I understand why. Dont worry about what people say and how the take goes only depends on how much the student payed attention.

He said that he will let his mohawk grow until the school ends. He wanted to show us that he did care and give us some spiret because he wanted us to past the TAKS if we past it he will color it a different color. He shave it because we will talk alot and not lisend to him not doing his homework, not doing his work and no pasing his tests. He got tayer of us he saw that we never improve and behaveir so that why I think he shave it.

He thought if he did something to show people that he's serious and every was all "can he, he's a teacher". He did it to make a point. Something for us to pay attention. But look at those kids, he still has not gave up. He cut it off because I think it was because we as a class did not do the deal. We had to pay attention and do our work. Give him respect.

In the beginning he cut his hair in a mohawk to get our attention and to try to motivate us and there are so many of us that took advantage of him for being nice and giving us so many chances but he shaved it off for the reason that no one payed attention no one was motivated we changed in the beginning but there are so many that just don't care Mr. D you rock I hated Algebra and it was hard then you helped me like it and be confadent about the taks Im not being a suck up I just want to speak well write the truth and thank you well that's pretty much the reason why you shaved it off there might be more to your story but Im pretty sure Im close.
Reading these comments, and all of the others, I am convinced my experiment was a rousing success. They also remind me of exactly why I was meant to do this, exactly why I want to teach forever.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Is this the future of education?

Courtesy Dangerously Irrelevant.

This video reminded me of last year, when I wanted to create a MySpace account for my current and former students, with strict controls enabled so that I had complete power over what would happen. I didn't want to get myself or my students into any trouble, as I had heard horror stories from both sides of schools coming down on seemingly innocuous things posted on social networking sites.

I was told by my campus IT person that since they couldn't control it, and of course it was also a banned website (which obviously meant it had no educational value), that I couldn't do it. I guess I could have done it anyway, but at the time I was just starting at the school and trying to dig in for the long haul.

I like the idea of students creating various types of media and content and sharing it online. I do thing that will be a big part of the future of education. If you're looking for ways to get started, you have to visit Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day, which is geared towards ESL, ELL and EFL teachers but is really meant for every teacher. Each day he posts numerous sites where students can easily create all sorts of content, as well as places to post things and collaborate online. Just reading it will provide all sorts of inspiration.

One thing does bother me about the video, though: it was created by the Pearson Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of Pearson, who also happen to be the authors of the TAKS. *shudder*

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Test Prep Idea #4: Tell Them How to Study

Every year, the story is the same: students don't know how to study. No one ever taught them how to study. I created the bulletin board at left to give them a little motivation and focus heading into our big test last week. The countdown had started at 30.

Here's what I advised them to do:
  1. Take home old notebooks to study. Mostly they collected dust or were raided by other students for scratch paper.
  2. Do any pages from the TAKS Workbooks that we didn't do in class on your own. Have Mr. D check them or give you the answers. We have the books, you might as well use every inch of them!
  3. Work hard in class on all "Countdown to TAKS" reviews. Every day for two weeks leading into the test, we did one or two pages from this section textbook, which provided good practice and covered a little bit of everything. Most textbooks include something similar in the book itself or supplemental materials.
  4. Make flash cards (get a pack of index cards, write the terms on one side & the answer/defintion/example on the other. This is a simple and powerful tool, and students told me they had followed my advice in other classes where they had to know a large amount of vocabulary to much success.
  5. Re-do old tests and benchmarks. No one took me up on this offer.
  6. Do practice TAKS questions at the end of each unit in the textbook. Ditto.
  7. Come to tutoring Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. We had a good turnout on Saturdays, but not so much during the week. I can't blame them--while I was there all three days throughout April, I was burnt out myself.
  8. Ask for extra practice tests. I always have extra copies of unit, grading period benchmark and semester tests lying around. By the end of the year, I put them out in a visible place for anyone who wants them.
  9. Create a study group--get your friends, some food, and some music and tutor each other (while still having fun). I told my students about my own experiences trying to study with my friends in high school, and I know some students were intrigued by this new-to-them idea.
  10. Get more SLEEP (it helps your brain). This is a theme I hammered home all year long that I made sure to mention one last time before the big one.
  11. Ask for a TAKS Study Guide book created by the state to help you. I had so many of these piled up, and they're freely provided by the state, so I gave them away to any student who asked.
There's no limit to how much you could extend the list, but obviously you have to consider how much of it will the average student be willing to read. Keep it simple.

By the way, now that the test is over, the countdown has been replaced by a Countdown to Summer. 29 days and counting!

Monday, May 5, 2008

What Passes for Teacher Appreciation

When I found a copy of a catalog from a company called Positive Promotions focusing on Teacher Appreciation Week (the first week of May), and I got to thinking about what passes for teacher appreciation these days. Apparently, it's tchotchkes--36 pages of useless, low-quality knick-knacks brandishing feel-good slogans:
  • Behind every great school is a great staff!
  • Teachers change the world one child at a time!
  • We [heart] our teachers!
  • Together we make a difference!
  • You can do it!
Every teacher on the planet, from every grade level, has desks/boxes/closets full of this stuff. It takes the form of mugs, tote bags, notepads, lunch bags, pens, and numerous other items I can only describe as grade-A crap. My school actually gave me an umbrella and a scarf last year, despite the fact that it almost never rains here and temperatures rarely drop below 50. I already received the first such item on Monday: a combination pen/laser pointer. What would I have done without this? This is the same kind of crap you get at professional development workshops hosted by companies trying to bilk your district out of thousands of dollars.

Looking through this catalog, I can tell you I want nothing in it. I can also safely assume that the vast majority of teachers want nothing from this catalog either. I hope that any administrators that may be reading this understand that showing your teachers how much you appreciate them is not something that can be summed up in a slogan on a mug.

Thus the question becomes, what does real teacher appreciation look like?

The NEA conducted a poll last year and found teachers appreciate a simple "thank you" more than most other forms of appreciation. Hearing "thank you" in various forms from my administration, department and most importantly my students is the reason I get up and go to school in the morning. I can never hear it enough.

I don't know about you, but most teachers I know appreciate being treated to breakfast or lunch. Many of us eat little or nothing for one or both meals due to time constraints or a relentless work ethic. Even if we do have something to eat, it's a nice break from the routine, especially if we don't have the opportunity to go out to eat at all.

Administrators and department chairs can show their appreciation by providing opportunities for teacher participation in the decision-making process, thoughtfully considering their input, and acknowledging their ideas to the department, whole faculty, or district officials. Our students like it when you "brag on" them, teachers are no different. There's a reason teacher-led schools (i.e. the law firm model) are growing exponentially and showing promising results.

Most importantly, our time must be respected. This statement has many meanings:
  • give us as much uninterrupted instructional time as possible
  • don't waste our time with pointless faculty meetings (meetings are for things that require discussion and debate, not for things that could be written in an email or paper memo)
  • don't bury us in redundant paperwork
  • let us have actual lesson planning time during planning periods
  • before you schedule something on weekends, before and after school, or during breaks, discuss it with us first!
There you have it. Besides the food, all of these options are free, and all of them are more effective than tchotchkes. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go play with my laser pointer.

Teacher Appreciation Week Giveaway: FREE Digital Edition of Ten Cheap Lessons!

To kick off Teacher Appreciation Week here on I Want to Teach Forever, I am offering a free digital edition of my book, Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom, to any teacher who requests one.

If you are interested, simply email me the following information by this Saturday, May 10th:
  1. Name
  2. City/Town you live in
  3. School name and location
  4. Subject/grade level taught
  5. How many years of teaching experience
The information is only to know where my book is going and to prove (to some extent) that you are a teacher; it will not be shared with or sold to anyone. I also ask that you let me know what you think of the book, and share it with anyone you think might get something out of it.

UPDATE (Tuesday 5/13/08): Thank you to all of the participants in this giveaway! Stay tuned for more giveaways and projects involving Ten Cheap Lessons!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Test Prep Idea #3: Calculator Tricks Every Students Should Know

To my fellow Texas teachers, I apologize for not writing this earlier--but I think you can relate, as you too have just made it through "testing week". Throughout the week, every high school student in Texas took at least one standardized test.

This article is about what every high school students needs to know about graphing calculators (focusing on Texas Instruments TI-83/84, the most widely used version). This idea is for anyone who hasn't tested yet, is preparing for final exams or next year, and for Pre-Algebra classes being introduced to graphic calculators. I'm covering only the basics, the stuff you must know for 9th grade/Algebra I standardized testing--in my opinion, everything else is extra.

Common Error Messages

This is just as important as anything else, since test administrators can't help students use the calculator just like they can't help them with the test itself.
  1. ERR: SYNTAX: You typed in something wrong. Instead of "Quit", select "Goto" to go to the place where the problem is. For my students, this happens frequently when they try to graph an equation, and use a subtraction sign instead of a negative sign in the front. However, you must also show them that sometimes when you confuse those signs, the calculator doesn't give you an error, it just graphs something different. (For example, graph x2 [minus] 5, then x2 [negative sign] 5 to illustrate the difference).
  2. ERR: INVALID DIM: One of the scatter plots (i.e. Plot1) on the top of the Y= screen has been turned on. Arrow up and hit ENTER to turn it off. This is a good opportunity to also show them how to toggle Y1, Y2, etc on and off.
  3. ERR: WINDOW RANGE: You messed up something in WINDOW. Fix it with ZOOM 6.
Besides using TRACE and checking the table, students need to know how to manipulate both the window and table settings to see whatever they need to see. However, your students should remember one thing: they can change any setting they want as long as they know how to change it back.
  1. ZOOM 6: This is the single most important button combination since the Konami Code. Your students must memorize this, and you must ask "How do I put the graph back to normal?" on a daily basis.
  2. Recenter with TRACE: Demonstrate moving around the graph with TRACE, and that ENTER will recenter the graph on that point, just like clicking a point on Google Maps or MapQuest. Sometimes this is better (and easier) than zooming in and out.
  3. ZoomIn/Out: Show students the most common pitfall of ZOOM IN/OUT, which is hitting ENTER more than once, which will continue to zoom in and out farther if they don't press any other buttons. If they're lost in the graph, ZOOM 6 baby!
  4. ZSquare: Explain that the calculator screen is streched out like a widescreen TV (point out how the spacing on the x-axis is wider than on the y-axis). To see perpendicular lines, for example, you must use ZSquare.
  5. ZoomFit: Good for fitting the graph in screen when other options don't work.
  6. You can show all of the Zoom options, as long as you continually remind them about ZOOM 6.
Table Settings
Show them how to change the table settings if they're trying to match an equation to a table or find specific values. TblStart can be set to anything (set to zero to reset it) and [delta]Tbl changes the increments, so when the independent variable increases by 0.5 or 50 you can quickly match the calculator's table to given data (set back to 1 when they want to go back to normal). I would recommend you leave the other two settings alone to avoid confusion.

Main Screen Editing Shortcuts
I see my students typing and retyping long equations and getting frustrated when they press the wrong button, for example. Teach them about:
  • 2nd, ENTER (ENTRY): Brings back the previous entry, so if they are plugging in values to an equation for example, they can just edit the part they need to.
  • DEL: Students don't always know they can delete something without deleting everything with CLEAR. I made an analogy to typing something in Microsoft Word--you don't delete an entire paragraph when you want to change one word, right?
  • 2nd, DEL (INS): I used the same analogy to explain the usefulness of INS. It's helpful when you have to solve a problem through trial and error or when you need to graph several similar equations.
Other Essentials
  • MATH, 1 or MATH, ENTER (Math>Frac): This function takes either a decimal or a given fraction and converts it to a fraction in simplest form. As far as the TAKS goes, most answers that can be expressed as fractions are fractions, and they're always simplified. So my students have to be able to convert answers by themselves or with the calculator.
  • Exponents: Make sure they know how to use the x2 key to square and the carat ^ for exponents other than 2.
  • Resetting: If all else fails, TI-83 Plus/TI-84 calculators can be reset by typing 2nd, +, 7, 1, 2. This should be their last resort, since it drains the batteries quite a bit.
  • Use parentheses: I tell my students to put parentheses around fractions and as often as necessary to avoid any problems with order of operations.
The "Equivalent Expression" Trick
I didn't actually show this to my students in the days leading up to the test, but I did mention it earlier this year. I know that many teachers think of this as cheating, or at the very least shows a severe weakness of our tests. There are many questions where students have to do nothing more than simplify an algebraic equation by using the distributive property, combining like terms, laws of exponents and so on.

Students can simply input the expression exactly as given as Y1 in the Y= screen, and input the answer choices as Y2, Y3, etc. The equivalent expression or equation will create an identical graph as the original expression, because, of course, it's actually the same equation in a different form. This means students don't actually need to know any algebra to do these problems! Despite what your kids might say, this is a bad thing.

What's worse is that you can actually type equations in the main screen, with X and everything, and the calculator will plug in its own value for X and give you a numerical answer. The right answer will give you the same numerical answer. The troubling thing is, many students don't understand why the numerical answer isn't one of the choices, nor do they have any idea where it came from.

I don't see an easy solution to this problem, but it's something the authors of these tests need to think about.

Another quick TI graphic calculator guide