Sunday, October 26, 2008

Project Idea: Using Formulas to Find Area, Perimeter and Circumference

In Algebra I, teachers often have to teach quite a bit of basic geometry. Sometimes, this is part of a far too ambitious state curriculum that covers too many topics in too little depth. This is also to prepare students for taking Geometry next year, standardized tests, and college entrance exams. Of course, solving expressions for given values is an essential part of basic algebra as well. So although finding area and perimeter of polygons as well as area and circumference of circles is a bit tangential to algebra, it's a good tangent to be on.

As we finish up our first quarter of the year, I thought a unit covering these topics would fit in well with the rest of the foundation we're building. I wanted to have a simple assessment to wrap things up while helping students to retain the information in the long term, so I drew on an idea from my former department head.

She had students create a formula book. The book contained every formula from the sheet given to students for the TAKS (the Texas state standardized test). Students would then show an example of a problem where they would use they formula. Well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

My version of the formula book contains formulas and examples for perimeter of any shape; area of squares, rectangles, parallelograms, triangles, trapezoids, circles and compound shapes; and circumference of circles. Each page had a title, formula and examples (2 different ones for most). As for what the book would look like, that was a creative decision for each students. Most opted to fold a regular size paper in half and staple the middle like a book binding.

I provided colored paper, markers, crayons, rulers and the like. My kids were given 2 block classes (about 2 hours total) to complete it, although I think that was more than enough time. I did create an example book and put various examples on the board to help students who had trouble getting started, but it was overall a very self-directed project. Judging by the completed books I received, I think this worked exactly as intended. Click below for the handout:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Masters Degree Scholarship Opportunity for Teachers via Pearson & Liberty Mutual

I received an email this week that teachers thinking about in a master's degree might be interested in (emphasis added):
Hi Mr. D,

I was reading your blog posts on teachers and education the other day and realized that with school in session, budget strings tightening and teacher salaries being what they are, that you may be interested in learning about a cool scholarship opportunity available to teachers via According to the site, teachers from across the country can apply online to receive one of 15 fully funded master’s degrees via Pearson. Time is running out though as the scholarship applications are due October 31 so I thought you might want to check it out, or at the very least, share it with your friends and readers who may want to apply. There’s also a school grant application which your school administrator may want to check out. It provides 10 separate $10,000 grants to fund professional development opportunities in schools.
I did some research and I think it's worth considering. The grant and scholarship applications are located on Liberty Mutual's Learn Return website, which also provides links to distance learning courses offered via Pearson.

The program was announced this summer and the applications are due October 31st. According to the website this is an extension, and the fact that I received this email from a PR rep suggests that there haven't been many quality applications, which should bode well for anyone who's seriously interested. There's more information here and the official rules can be found here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Recommended Escapist Reading: "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" by David Sedaris

I hope that you have a three day weekend in observation of Columbus Day as I do, but either way, this book is a great way to escape the stress of school. I actually haven't read any of David Sedaris previous books; instead, I listened to all of his previous work on audiobooks driving between Texas and New Jersey over the last few years.

Indeed, I think that audiobooks may be the best way to fully appreciate Sedaris's work. His voice and delivery enhances every punchline, whether he's in the studio or drawing from the energy of a live audience. It's just as suited for iPods on public transit as it is for long car rides, and you're really drawn into the stories with Sedaris.

That being said, I decided to take full advantage of a commute where I'm not driving and actually read Sedaris's latest collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. What I love about his books is how deeply he thinks about every person he observes or interacts with; he imagines their lives, their motivations, their internal reactions to whatever he has said or done. Inanimate objects and non-talking animals are brought to life in vivid, hilarious ways as well.

There's also an underlying theme throughout Sedaris's essays written since he met his boyfriend Hugh. For all his tongue-in-cheek contempt of Hugh's ability to handle any situation and casual dismissals of Sedaris' many neuroses, Sedaris clearly loves and needs him to survive. It also provides great comedic fodder: Hugh is the straight man to Sedaris's ridiculousness. It's reminds me of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen chases a lobster around the kitchen frantically while Diane Keaton wonders out loud why he's making such a big deal out of it. I don't know why this thread, more than anything, speaks to me, but I know it's both touching and endearing.

If you've never read anything by David Sedaris, know that he paints a lively picture of what might seem like the most mundane moments of life. You enter his world completely; instead of viewing each episode as an outsider who might grow annoyed by Sedaris's many anxieties, you find yourself agreeing with him and recalling your own recent (or ancient) traumas.

This is why When You Are Engulfed in Flames is perfect escapist reading for the stressed-out teacher. It is hilarious, fully enveloping, and has nothing to do with teaching (except for Sedaris trying out a language school in Japan during an extended trip there). If you're hooked, you can't go wrong with The Ultimate David Sedaris boxed set, which contains audiobook versions of everything up to and including his last book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Let me know what you think!

Stressed? Read more ideas about teacher stress relief.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A project for students who ask: "When will we ever use this in the real world?"

Every year I've taught math, kids have tested me with the age-old "When will we ever use this in the real world?" question. It's a ridiculous question, of course, mostly asked as an avoidance behavior by students who just don't want to do their work. It sets them up for failure in the short term and the long term, because in their view, there's no point to what we're doing.

Nevertheless, I am not one to minimize student questions, even silly ones. I tend to answer almost every question that's thrown my way. So when I heard this issue of relevance brought up years ago, I figured there was a very easy way to answer them definitively: show them the wide range of jobs that require math skills, most of which don't require any sort of math degree.

Thus I developed my Math in the Real World project, where students would use Internet job search engines to seek positions requiring some kind of math skills. For each job, they would fill out a profile that included the pertinent details and qualifications. Afterward, they would reflect on their findings: What did you learn? What was the most surprising job you found? Is there a field you now want to learn more about?

This project has always been a rousing success, and our first day of research today was no exception. I made only two small changes to the version I used with my former students this past May:
  1. I removed from the list of search engines because it was too focused on obvious math-related jobs (engineering, computers and other high-tech positions) and the descriptions were too full of technical jargon that only served to confuse and frustrate my students. I added the more general search engine Simply Hired to replace it.
  2. I looked up a new job for the sample profile that was both local and a job that appeared to be completely unrelated to math on the surface. It was a health care position focused on diabetes treatment.
I didn't have to do much in terms of introducing the project, beyond stating the simple purpose of it: to show students that there are a lot of places where you can use math in the real world, many of which you would never think of, and most of which don't require a math degree. I told students that they could easily search for jobs they might be interested in by searching for "math" followed by the type of job or career they were thinking about (i.e. "math real estate" or "math health care").

These are some of the more intriguing jobs students found today:
  1. Cook at a nursing home
  2. Real Estate Agency intern
  3. Taco Bell manager
  4. Rehabilitation nurse
  5. Lifeguard
I can't wait to see what they'll find tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Another Low Cost Method to Build a Classroom Library - Our online book club offers free books when you swap, trade, or exchange your used books with other book club members for free.Since moving to Boston, I've been looking for more ways to save money to help afford the higher cost of living. I sold my car before I left south Texas, which cut out a huge list of expenses. My girlfriend and I had been living apart down there, which means we were able to combine a lot of expenses we were paying for separately when we moved in together this summer. I'd also be a lot closer to my family and many friends, cutting travel costs significantly. In short, I've done everything in my personal life to cut costs and still live happily.

As the new school year came around, I worried about how to continue to build my classroom library without spending nearly as much as I used to. Luckily I learned about one resource that would completely change the way I was approaching the problem: PaperBackSwap.

I heard about PaperBackSwap from The Simple Dollar, a great personal finance blog that helps me keep my self in check. The concept is simple: you make a list of books you don't want. Members request them from you, and you pay only for shipping (USPS Media Mail). You get credits for every book you swap, which you use to request the books that you do want. No money changes hands; you just pay the post office to ship.

The site even includes a template for making your own simple envelope out of two pieces of printer paper. I myself use bubble mailers and attach the PBS-provided printable address label to it, but that's just personal preference.

What this meant for me is that I was able to swap many books that I wouldn't have been able to sell and get many new books for school for less than $3 each (the shipping cost). It freed up space at home, as I turned unwanted personal books into in-demand classroom library books.

I was able to get the first six books of the Harry Potter series, the first three Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, and Taking Sides by Gary Soto.

This is a free site, built on the principle that people can save money (and the environment) by trading. It's worked out well for me. PBS has two sister sites: Swap-a-DVD and Swap-a-CD. I've used the former for personal DVDs, but if I ever needed something for school, that would be a big help as well.

If you have used these sites, or other similar networks, please leave a comment or email me. Good luck!

Monday, October 6, 2008

How to Show YouTube and Other Internet Video for School Easily

There is a lot of useful educational material on YouTube, Google Video and other Internet video sites. The problem, of course, is that most if not all of these sites are blocked by most school districts. Some textbooks now come with online video lessons, but even if you are fortunate enough to have access, your Internet connection is probably slow and unreliable. Thus you might be understandably be discouraged from even bothering to look for video that would help supplement your lessons.

Luckily, there are tools out there for downloading and/or converting almost all types of online videos to something you could play directly from your computer. This means you could find and download what you needed at home, then put it on a CD, DVD or thumb drive and bring it to school for easy, immediate playback.

The easiest method requires two downloads:
  1. Mozilla Firefox - Hopefully you've heard of this open-source, free alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. It has two overwhelming benefits: it's more stable and secure than IE, and there are tons of free add-ons that can make it do exactly what want. You should download this regardless of whether you want to download video or not!
  2. Video DownloadHelper extension for Firefox - This add-on adds a button to your main toolbar that lights up every time you're on a site that contains video it can download. Just click on it, and you will see what can be saved to your computer. You can even make it convert videos to different formats--something you could play in Windows Media Player, Apple Quicktime, or even an iPod (which of course wouldn't be very helpful in most school districts, but might be helpful for you personally).
This would make it easier to show something like a video from The Futures Channel, an excellent resource that has short, engaging videos on all sorts of math, science and technology topics and relevant lesson plans for each one. Instead of crossing your fingers for your school's unreliable Internet connection to work, you could use this to have a downloaded backup copy at the very least (although this is against their Terms of Use so I cannot, of course, condone it).

Neither of these programs will take up a lot of space or resources on your computer, and have far more benefits than this specific function. I'll be sure to share more things you can do with Firefox to help you in the classroom in the future.

UPDATE 12/20/08: There's another new website I learned about from Lifehacker called KickYouTube. It's painfully simple: Find the URL of the video you want to download. Insert "kick" before "youtube" in the URL, and you'll be able to download the video in a number of formats. Best of all, it requires no software download at all.

Larry Ferlazzo has shared more ways to access educational videos at school as well. Please share your best resources in the comments.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Please watch this before you go to school tomorrow!!

I just saw this video linked by Joel at So You Want To Teach?, and I wanted to make sure as many people as possible saw it. It nearly brought me to tears. If this doesn't get you focused going into this week of school, I don't know what can.

Do You Believe?

Getting student feedback: October 2008 edition

I always seek feedback from my students on a fairly regular basis. The questions are geared towards figuring out what I can do better, as well as what the students themselves can improve. In short, I get a good idea of what's working or not working. I also get insight into the things I don't see from my perspective.

I used the mid-year student survey that I've typically given in January. The reason for giving it so early is that I'm not happy with the way things have been going, and I need that fresh perspective that only students can give. I just read through all of their comments, and I wanted to share some of what I learned.

The one thing we did in class that helped me learn the most was...
...everything, because even though we talk a lot, I still learn because you have patience
...When you sat down with me & explain the assignment to me explained the problems clearly & you took your time you didn't rush like other teachers.
The consensus I got from many students was that they learned the most when I worked through problems on the board or helped students individually when they needed it.

Mr. D could make math more interesting and exciting to me if he...
...makes some problems that we would have to deal with in real life
...was into it.
...does exactly what he does. Its only interesting and exciting depending on students motivation to learn & get out.
...would stand on his hands and teach
I have no idea about that last one, but I guess it's not a stretch compared to some other things I've done to get students' attention.

Mr. D can show he cares about me as a person by...
...talking w/ me.
...letting me use his sweater when im cold
...keeping me on task giving us a chance.
...asking me how was my day
...asking me how's work, i'm assuming he knew the reason for my poor participation, HW & sleeping in class :( he helps everyone so I say he cares for everyone

I hate it when Mr. D says...
...oh you know how to do it just try is the homework guys!

One thing Mr. D should do more is...
...teach people as a class instead of individual one by one
...give me feathers!!! [My school has a system where good behavior is rewarded by feathers, which can be redeemed for different things.]
...fight crime
Once again, I have no idea where that last one came from. Not surprisingly, it's on the same survey as the person who told me to teach class while doing a handstand.

Usually the most telling things come from the "additional comments and suggestions" section at the end.
...Mr. D your the stuff never change
...You're a great teacher Mr. D but you still got to smile more
...Mr. D, you're a good teacher. Don't sweat it. It's more the students than you, trust me; you can teach. It's the students' ability to learn at question...
The tone of all of the surveys ranged from positive to apathetic, which I think is pretty good. I sometimes get the idea that my students think I do these surveys because I'm a horribly depressed person who is desperate for their approval and assurance.

The scary thought I keep having is: What if they're right?

Mid-Year Student Survey (via Google Docs)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why I can't get any work done

It's very easy to get distracted at school. On any given day, there's student issues to deal with, lessons to prepare and papers to grade around your normal routine. So it should be no wonder that I'm always looking for something to take me far away from the stress of being a teacher.

I've come a long way in terms of staying focused at work and using my time efficiently, but this year, I've noticed that there's one particular activity that has kept me from doing what I should be doing: I keep searching for deals on travel.

I search for flights, buses, rental cars and ferries. Living in Boston, there's many more options for getting away, but things are so much more expensive here than the Rio Grande Valley that it makes most trips an irresponsible stretch at best. No matter the reason, I spend my free periods searching on Kayak, Megabus or on the sites of companies that run a ferry between Long Wharf and Provincetown. This isn't really a mystery: I need to get away. Unfortunately, most of this searching is for naught. I can't really afford these types of trips anymore.

There was a time when flying across the country wasn't a big deal, when it didn't need a second thought. It took moving 2000 miles across the country to realize how good I had it. The cost of living was as good as it gets in south Texas, and so flights that cost from $300-700 were a very reasonable expsense. Now I get uptight about going to a restaurant for dinner, because it could very easily equal the cost of a flight to the RGV.

I spend a lot of time figuring out if I can visit my family in New Jersey, my old stomping grounds in the Rio Grande Valley, or places on my long list of places to go before I die. I would never blame myself or anyone else from needing a break at this crucial time of the school year. Nevertheless, I'm not happy with myself for spending my time at work in such a manner.

I wonder what kind of things everyone else out there searches for at school, rather than at home. Perhaps you could enlighten me. Email me the kinds of things you waste time doing at school. I'll include your suggestions in a future post. Thank you!