Thursday, February 28, 2008

When you feel like nothing's working

I have this one class during the day where it seems no matter what I do, they are just completely disconnected from it. The students don't misbehave really, but they're either dead silent, falling asleep or otherwise giving me blank stares. We were nearly done with a short review of independent and dependent variables when I was overcome with a sense that I had lost them.

It wasn't as if I had droned on for a long time--we weren't even 10 minutes into class. I had already done the same lesson 3 times that day and it worked well all day. With this group, however, there was nothing. Not a sound, barely a blink of their eyes. The silence was deafening.

So I stopped almost mid-sentence. I asked them what the problem was. So many of them had failed the benchmark and weren't anywhere close to passing that they would need a lot of work to reach our goals. It seemed to me that if they were having so much trouble, they might pay more attention, not less; try harder, not less. I asked, and I waited. More silence.

After a couple of minutes of nothing, I asked them to write to me since they're clearly not a group of talkers. What was I as the teacher doing wrong? What can I do to help them? If it's not me, what is it? I told them (as I have many times before) that I blame myself when they don't do well, or they don't seem to be getting our lessons. I told them I didn't want their name on it, because I wanted them to be honest. I told them what their assignment was and then let them get to work.

I wasn't sure what to expect from their answers, but just like the insights I got from their Mid-Year Student Surveys, I learned a lot about where they're coming from and the challenges we have to overcome.
before you toss this paper aside...
I'm sorry, for everything and every day that you feel the way you do.
I'm sorry that I can't do nothing for it too. I try and I try but nothing gets better for me...or you
I'm sorry, that you feel like your not getting through but really it's not you, I think it's me. I get so tired before this class. and I'm not all there. I think about things other than here.
My mind is a whirlpool thing's sucked in but nothing comes out, to rethink, things over.
its hard for me, I don't understand
I think I have ADD I can't stay focused on something. I get so distracted with anything a tapping pencil or girls chattering, even the silence seems to bother me and I know you think that I'm just a kiddo.
but I know a few things or too, more then some people know, but I also wanna know some things about Algebra 1 atleast a little to make it through.
i'm sorry that I couldn't do more. but thank you for never giving up on me.


Sir, you are doing good, you don't have the blame if the other guys don't pass the benchmark. you are a very good teacher because I had never pass a benchmark or a taks before, but this year I learned a lot of things and with that was enough to pass the benchmark and now I'm going to pass the TAKS. Sir, again you are doing very good maybe you need to take that guys out of your class and send them someplace else that way you will teach even better.


Sorry Mr. D but there's nothing wrong with you teaching everything's okay its just me that I think its Boring thats the true... its just that I dont like school...


It's not that you don't teach good. your a good teacher. I just Hate Math... I can't stand all the numbers... I Never passed a Math TAKS test, only last year. But I just don't like it. Say or do what you do I'll Never like Math. Even if I try. I TRY! Bu tit just won't click into my head. But U R a cool teacher. It's just that Math aint for ME!!!


Well Sr. I don't have anything to say, just I'm sorry for all the freaking things that the class do. Sometimes I get mad at me because sometimes I don't pay attention to the class...


SORRY! Hey sir well I know that we haven't been doing how you expected but I don't think its bcz of you. I think its us and I know we have a problem! ...You have to understand that the "road has some bumbs and you have to go over them" just a saying hehehe well me I have my reasons why I don't try my best And I'm going to tell you them Right Know
  1. Bcz I get distracted with all the noise
  2. I don't really understand and Im Afraid to ask you when U R mad
  3. Bcz Im not a smart student and It takes long for me to get stuff stuck in my head! and well I do understand its not your fault., and I know that your thinking "Im gonna talk to her" and then thats it but no. I just can't get to be a perfect student and I know u r a really nice understanding teacher and you have helped me alot, and I just want to thank you and say that Im sorry! bcz I don't know how to pay you back!
P.S. Your a great teacher Sir, and we all know that, its just us that don't understand!
I may get frustrated and discouraged on occasion, but I'll never give up.

Follow-Up: Measurement, Volume, & Surface Area Project

In early February I posted a measurement, volume and surface area project aimed at helping my students master these skills:
  1. Identifying solids and their formulas
  2. Drawing nets
  3. Measuring dimensions
  4. Finding volume and surface area (lateral and total)
  5. Dilating the dimensions by a scale factor (both enlarging and reducing)
  6. Figuring out problems of filling or emptying a solid at a given rate.
Students found this information for two objects and then displayed it on a half size poster board. Here are pictures of the finished products, which are currently on display in the main hall of my high school:

I think they did a great job, and the feedback I've gotten from the students is that they understand the various parts a lot better than before. We'll see how we do come TAKS time! For more information and documentation on this project, see the link below:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to Write Better Word Problems

If you really want your students to grow as a mathematician and have them succeed on standardized tests as an added bonus, incorporating more thought-provoking, relevant word problems can make a huge difference. By challenging them to read, write, think, and relate classroom lessons to their lives, you'll both increase their ability and their investment in your classroom.

Before you can start, you have to know what not to do: don't rely on questions from textbooks, released tests or state-issued material. You can use them if they fall into one of the categories below, but if you look at the examples you'll see why they may not be as beneficial as you think.

Guidelines for Writing Better Word Problems
  1. Have them do something. Ask them to figure out something that would force them to get up and/or look around the room to find or get closer to an answer. This gets them involved and engaged immediately, because it's not something they would be asked to do on a standardized test question.
  2. It's all about them. As I've said many times, all teenagers have one thing in common: they want you to think about them. Sometimes this means demonstrating your keen awareness of them through the relevant questions you ask. This can take on many forms, but you can start with what their concerned about in their lives: school, cell phones, music, cars, movies, their boyfriend/girlfriend, other friends, etc.
  3. Spark a discussion. Don't shy away from a challenging or controversial topic if it will get them thinking mathematically. That discussion might make your lesson one of the more memorable ones of the year, and that's rarely a bad thing.
  4. Money, money, money. The easiest connection to make with most math topics is to money issues. Textbook and test makers rely on this as well, so its up to you to differentiate your questions from theirs by applying the other guidelines here.
  5. Connect math to the real world. Just keep in mind that their world and your world aren't really the same thing, so think about things from their perspective (see #2). Make references to local people, places and things or situations they themselves or their family currently or will soon face.

Here are some examples that apply to some or all of the guidelines above, marked with the Algebra I topic they addressed.
Count the number of girls in this class right now. Then count the number of boys. Subtract the number of girls - the number of boys. Finally, subtract the number of boys - the number of girls. What's the difference between the two answers? [adding and subtracting integers]

Juan makes $1200 a month working full time at Wal-Mart. If his bills are $400 for rent, $150 for electricity, $35 for water/garbage and $50 for his cell phone, how much does he have left for himself and his family? [solving one-step equations with adding and subtracting]

A new 19 inch TV costs about $200. At Rent-a-Center, you pay $12 a week for 78 weeks for the same TV. What's the total cost at Rent-a-Center? [solving one-step equations with multiplication and division]

For every hour she works at Dollar General, Veronica makes 6 dollars. Make a table and a graph showing the hours she works and the money she makes (up to 8 hours). [creating and connecting tables and graphs of a relationship]

The cost of a Whataburger meal is $3.99 each. Write a function for the total cost, c, in terms of the number of meals you buy, m. Use your function to find out how much 8 meals would cost. [writing equations and functions]

A student has six weeks grades of 75 and 50. If you need at least 210 points to pass the semester, what grade does he or she need this six weeks? [measures of central tendency, inequalities]

The yearbook staff sells about $150 of snacks at lunch every day. How long would it take to raise at least $10,000? [inequalities]

Working as a waiter at the new Chili's in Mission will earn you about $2 an hour plus tips. If you work 40 hours per week, at least how much do you need in tips to makes $250 a week? [inequalities]

A subscription to Netflix costs $18 per month for unlimited DVD rentals. If you rented DVDs from a local store, it would cost about $3.50 each. How many DVDs would you have to rent each month for you to SAVE money using Netflix? [systems of linear equations]

The population of Mission in the 2000 census was about 45,000. If the population is increasing by about 3,000 people a year, what should the population be by the end of this year? [rates, ratios, and proportions]

Verizon Wireless charges $0.49 per minute for calls to Mexico. Write an equation to find m, the number of minutes a person can call Mexico for $20. [writing equations and functions]

Mr. D walks 8 miles north and 3 miles west. How far is he from where he started? [Pythagorean theorem]

Mr. D stands on top of a building 250 meters tall. If he jumps off and falls at a rate of 9.8 meters per second, what equation could you use to show how long it will take him to hit the ground and DIE? [writing equations and functions]
Many of these questions led to relevant discussions, usually touched off by a student asking, "Is that true, sir?" More students were engaged in trying to figure out the problem than if I would have had them do something from the textbook or merely given them wordless problems to solve. They were used mostly as "Do Now" activities that would introduce the objective we would cover that day and hook students attention right away.

More Info

For more ideas like this, read my earlier article Reading and Writing in Math Through Journals. Click the literacy tag for even more.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

5 Tips for Building a Quality (non-ELA) Classroom Library

If your classroom is like mine, you have a lot of reluctant readers, LEP students, at-risk students, and those who just aren't engaged with school in general. Recently I posted some suggestions for taking control of your advisory period and instituting DEAR time. One way to ensure your success is to build a quality classroom library full of books your students will actually want to read.
  1. Get them doing instead of just reading. I like to have as many how-to, reference and art books on hand as possible. I realized a long time ago that encouraging my students to get involved in some sort of art or hobby instead of merely getting them to read might keep them out of a lot of trouble. As the saying goes, students learn by doing, so there's a lot of non-fiction on my bookshelves. Here are three books that have been big hits:

  2. Think local. Some books in your library should be either be set in or about your region, culturally relevant, or written by a local author. Teachers pay a lot of lip service towards approaching students at their level, but this is that idea in practice. Since we reside in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I have two of Rene Saldana Jr's books in my classroom:

  3. Having all the books in a popular series or by a popular author is never a bad thing. This year's students have been really into both the Twilight series as well as Ellen Hopkins' books (Impulse, Burned, and Crank). I found out about these by noticing what my students were already reading and by researching lots of recommendations and reviews online. Some students have already been asking about the Uglies series and I've noticed lots of similar teen-focused series popping up at the bookstore, so I know this area is only growing. The best part is that if your students get hooked on one, they'll probably read the entire series, which is why you need to get them all as soon as possible.
  4. High school and middle school students like to read about high school and middle school students. If there's one trait of adolescents you can exploit fully and without guilty, its their shameless self-interest. We have been reading the The Freedom Writers Diary together during advisory and despite the length, my students have been riveted. Earlier selections we've read together were Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey and Gary Soto's Taking Sides, both of which dealt with students in high school dealing with seemingly insurmountable challenges. When I asked them if they wanted to read something of a different genre, they asked for more of the same, and I happily obliged.
  5. Use lists of high interest/low reading level (Hi-Lo) books as a starting point. This compilation of 10 Hi-Lo reading lists on should give you a lot of books to start with. After testing some out in your classroom, you can search for recommendations for similar books to whatever is getting over well with your students. Similarly, the ALA's yearly list of best books for reluctant readers can provided leads on dozens of titles that will work for your classroom.
How Can I Afford All This?

Besides soliciting donations from family and friends (either directly or by setting up a wish list on or other sites), Barnes & Noble's bargain section is an easy place to start. Ask your school librarian, department chair, and curriculum director if there are funds available for book purchases there or elsewhere. Set up a project on DonorsChoose if you're looking for a huge number of books. I have also drawn many books from my personal collection that otherwise would have gone unused for a long time.

Books Alone Are Not Enough

As I've discussed here before, my classroom library also has free daily newspapers (sponsored by my local paper) from the Newspapers in Education program and several free subscriptions to magazines. These are as essential to my cause as the books, because even those students who have never picked up a book will read one or the other.

Where Do I Put All These Books?

If you can't get any free shelving at school, you're The cheapest route is to buy some small office supply store bookcases. These usually run around $20, are easy to assemble, and don't take up too much space. For my magazines, I bought 3-tier magazine racks from an office supply store and plastic magazine bins from a dollar store for the older issues. My newspapers are generally kept in a repurposed printer paper box and later reused by students and other teachers for various academic endeavors.

How Can I Get Started?

Read my recent post entitled Take Back Advisory: DEAR Time for All for more ideas.

2 More Mini-Poster Ideas

In my book I discuss mini-posters, where students create a "poster" on a standard 8.5" x 11" piece of unlined paper. Recently I used this idea in two new ways:

4 Questions, 4 Mini-Posters

After a week of classwork on percents, proportions, reading charts and probability, I wanted to use an alternative assessment (I have been working under a no multiple-choice test policy since our most recent benchmark). We have a state test prep workbook that has multiple-choice questions on each objective we need to cover, but obviously I like to use this sparingly. It is not always as aligned as I might like it to be and often the scope and level of the problems is just plain overkill.

That being said, it's still useful in bits. So I asked students to make a mini-poster for each of the four topics we covered, drawing questions from the pages in the test prep workbook. So they would have four questions, four correct answers, and most importantly, the work involved in solving the four problems. While I did ask them to put some effort into making it look presentable (so we can hang them up), the 4 mini-posters were graded solely on showing the work (or writing an explanation) and the right answer.

To keep grading simple, each question was worth 15 points for the correct answer and 10 points for showing the work (although I could understand if you wanted to flip that ratio). I also then looked at the posters as a whole and took off a few points if they didn't really follow the directions (i.e. they put all 4 questions on one paper or put little to no effort into making it legible or poster-y).

Overall it gave me just as good of a picture as any traditional assessment I would have given, while allowing them the time to really analyze the problems and get help on difficult problems.

Parent Functions

Mini-posters are also useful for vocabulary that needs to be memorized, because it forces the student to visit and revisit the definition and to create visuals and examples that illustrate it. On our January benchmark, students had no idea what the linear parent function was, because we hadn't yet discussed it in class (I wanted to save it for later in the year since we would couple it with the quadratic parent function). This is one of those rare Algebra items that requires no work, just memorization like they do more frequently in history or biology.

So first we defined the two parent functions we focus on in our course: linear and quadratic. We wrote the equations (y=x and y=x2, respectively) and sketched the graphs. I explained that linear functions made a straight line graph and had no exponent higher than 1, and that quadratic equations made a U-shaped graph and had x2 as the highest exponent in its equation.

On the poster, I asked them to illustrate this, as well as an additional example from each family of functions--the babies. The parents are the most basic functions that we compare the others to, I explained, and all of the others are "babies". Besides the definition, students are asked to identify which family a given function belongs to, so this is crucial.

So their poster has two parents and two babies. I'm concerned that maybe I should have left the babies out so as not to distract them from the definition of a parent function, but I think this was simple enough that there was little confusion. I just hope my students don't go home and tell their parents, "today in Algebra, Mr. D told us to make babies."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ten Cheap Lessons: Downloads and Extras!

[Update 9/17/09]

A revised, expanded Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition is now available exclusively on! Click here for more information.
Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom, is not your ordinary teacher resource book. One of the best advantages of having this website is that I can offer downloads and extras to make the book more valuable. Almost all of the sample lessons plans include supplemental materials, but of course they are much more useful as fully editable documents.


Here are the ten ideas from the book and their accompanying documents. Note that some documents may differ from how they were published as quite a bit of editing was done and conversion between formats.
  1. Idea #1: The Mini-Poster - Independent vs. Dependent Variables poster directions
  2. Idea #2: Using a Word Wall in the Secondary Classroom - Word Wall Project
  3. Idea #3: Card Games - Like Terms directions, score sheet
  4. Idea #4: Finding Jobs in the Real World - Using Math in the Real World project
  5. Idea #5: Use Labs Outside of Science Class - Math Lab
  6. Idea #6: Newspaper Activities - Newspaper Mini-Project, Newspaper Review
  7. Idea #7: Songs and Music - The Domain and Range Song
  8. Idea #8: Students Become the Teachers - Slope-Intercept Study Guide, Slope-Intercept Project, Teacher for a Day project
  9. Idea #9: A Basketball Review Game (That Doesn't Involved Crumpled Paper Thrown in the Wastebasket) - Photo of classroom setup, Sportscraft Monster Basketball Set used for the game
  10. Idea #10: Preparing for the Test Without Teaching to the Test - The supplemental materials you need are your own benchmark and diagnostic tests. For example, I used this idea to have my students fix a benchmark test.
Contact Information

Email me at teachforeverATgmailDOTcom to inquire about Ten Cheap Lessons or to book me for interviews, speaking events, workshops, conferences or classes.

You can reach me via voicemail at (956) 278-0007.

Where to Order
* Second Edition is available exclusively at


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Resource of the Day: Bubble Test Form Generator

I took a mental health day today, so here's a helpful Resource of the Day:

Bubble Test Form Generator
- This free site allows you to create a custom bubble sheet you can use for any multiple choice test or assignment you're using. There's plenty of options and styles available so you can make it look exactly the way you want. Despite the wide range of options, it's still ridiculously quick and easy to use.

This should come in especially handy as we head into testing season. I've used them for practice TAKS tests and other take home standardized test prep. It's often easier to grade than having students list their answers themselves, since it eliminates the problem of not being able to read the answer or students accidentally skipping problems.

Do you know about any hidden gems other teachers would find useful? Leave a comment or email me at teachforeverATgmailDOTcom.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Take Back Advisory: DEAR Time for All

At first, I hated advisory. I have no problem with DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time, but at my school, it is largely a joke. Many teachers let their students roam the halls, use their cellphones, put on make up, or otherwise do nothing related to reading for our 30 minute period. Worse yet, our students were not at all encouraged or motivated to read independently, and so they didn't. I struggled all last year to get my kids reading, and in the end wasn't at all successful.

When the new year's advisory period started to go the same way, I decided to take back advisory.

If they didn't want to read independently, we would read together. I would extend the principles I used to build my classroom library to pick out engaging books for my students, and then we would take Accelerated Reader tests on each book together. Ideally, our program would help improve reading comprehension, increase student interest in reading, and provide a structure that students would easily adapt to.

Here are five tips to get you started:
  1. Provide extra credit or other small incentives to encourage students to keep reading. For example, after we read Gary Soto's Pacific Crossing, about a Mexican-American teenager who travels to Japan as part of an exchange program, I brought in some Japanese snacks to eat while we read. I brought ramune, a Japanese soda mentioned often in the book as well as some rice crackers purchased from a local market. The students enjoyed drinking it and it helped make the book (and our advisory) more memorable. Alternatively, you could organize a trip to a local bookstore or large public/college library to check out or buy books for your top readers.
  2. Pick engaging books. If you have reluctant readers like I do, a good place to start is the ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers. Read online reviews of popular teen titles, ask your English Language Arts teachers, and most importantly, watch for trends and interests among your students. You will always have a handful of enthusiast readers in your classes--keep an eye out for what they're reading and ask them what they think of particular titles and authors.
  3. Don't start with anything difficult. If you're trying to save your advisory period from the abyss, you can't start with Finnegans Wake. That doesn't mean you can't challenge your students--it just means you have to build up to it. You are trying to show your students that reading is something they might actually like to do.
  4. Take them to get their own books from the library... especially if they don't read novels in English class!
  5. As another incentive (and as a jumping off point for discussion and reflection), you can perhaps watch the movie version of whatever you're reading.
If you read your students well enough, you should start to see the students get into reading every day, and any discipline problems you have will be quelled by the majority. I actually enjoy advisory each day, which is far cry from where it once was.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

25 Tips for Stress Relief (from So You Want to Teach?)

I guess I wasn't the only person inspired by Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek to reduce my stress, simplify my life, and focus on doing what I really want to be doing. Joel at So You Want to Teach? posted 25 Tips for Less Stress last fall, and he also referred to many of the book's ideas in his posts. Great minds think alike!

Alternately, he compiled all the of articles into a free e-book called The Instant De-Stress Handbook (just subscribe to his RSS feed for the link).

I've added So You Want To Teach's RSS feed on the right hand side of the page, because it's always an interesting and informative read. Joel is a fifth year teacher in Texas like myself, and reading his accounts of his challenge such as his recent post Why I Hated Teaching During My First Two Years, it brings me back to my own experience.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Lesson Idea: Probability using Deal or No Deal

No matter what I'm doing or where I am, I'm constantly making literal and mental notes of ideas I can use to improve my teaching. Sometime last year, while wandering around an educational toy store in the mall for just this reason, I mentioned to my friend Dave (a fellow teacher) how I thought the game show Deal or No Deal would be a great way to teach probability. At its heart, the show is about figuring out your chances of getting a better deal by playing on or taking the bank's offer--in other words, your probability of getting the better deal. Dave thought this was a great idea, and we returned to our perusing.

Several weeks later, Dave told me he had shared the idea with math teachers at his school, who used it in class to great success. It was apparently a huge hit. While I'm all about sharing my ideas and helping students beyond my classroom, I was a little miffed, because I hadn't actually used the idea with my students! I had forgotten all about it until Dave's reminder, and so I made a resolution to reap the benefits of my own idea this year.

Building Background

The first thing I did was introduce probability the day before the game. I started with a question: "Every time I flip a coin, I have a 50/50 chance of landing on heads or tails. So if I flip it 50 times, I should get 25 heads and 25 tails, right?" This kicks off a discussion about theoretical probability, which we then tested. Small groups flipped a coin 50 times and tallied heads and tails. Then we came back together and compared their data (experimental probability) to our theoretical probability. I also used a deck of cards to show several examples of probability (especially the idea of replacement) as well as compound probability. This would provide a foundation for our game the next day.

Adapting the Game

I already had an idea of how to adapt the game for my purposes, but I thought I would buy the Deal or No Deal card game that I had seen severely discounted at local Target stores (about $7). I thought it would give me some ideas and at the very least neat prop (the briefcase) to use, but basically everything I needed was there in the game. The only thing I needed to add was a graphic organizer where we would calculate the probability of getting a better deal by saying "no deal" after each bank offer.

The card game has a 4 decks:
  1. Briefcase cards are numbered 1-26
  2. Round cards show how many briefcases to open each round (why they couldn't just write it down as a list is a mystery)
  3. Bank offer cards to provide a random offer each round
  4. Cash cards to hide under the Briefcase cards
The game play is simple:
  1. Take one briefcase to hold onto which could be yours at the end of the game.
  2. Each round, players open a diminishing number of briefcases, starting with six in Round One and ending with one in Round Nine.
  3. After the briefcases are opened, the bank makes an offer, and the player can accept it (deal) and the game is over, or reject it (no deal) and keep playing.
  4. If the player rejects all bank offers, they will be left with their briefcase and one other, and choose which they will open. Whatever they choose is the amount they win.
As I said, I only needed to add students finding the probability of getting a better deal if they rejected the bank offer. So I created a simple graphic organizer combining the enclosed game sheets and a table that looked like this:

Students would write in the results of each round, like so:

RoundBank Offer# of briefcases left with more money than Bank OfferProbability of winning more than Bank OfferDeal or No Deal?
1$100,00055/20 = .25 = 25%No Deal

I used magnets to hold the briefcase cards and cash cards underneath on the board (you could also use a hanging pocket display with clear pockets, the kind you often see in elementary classrooms). I would play Howie (I considered, but did not purchase, a bald cap), there wouldn't be any models to open the cases, and the class would play as a whole group.

Playing the Game

After picking a student to start us off by claiming "our" case, I had students pick each other "popcorn style" to choose the briefcases to open each round. When it came time for the bank offer, I pretended to get calls and text messages from the bank on my cell phone. We would figure out the probability, fill in the graphic organizer like the example above, and decide whether to take the deal. Most classes wanted to play at least a few rounds no matter what before they started to argue over taking the deal or not (especially once the million dollars came off the board). In those cases, we voted.

The game took about 40 minutes to play through, and in a couple of classes we had enough time for an extremely rushed second game. Students only needed their graphic organizers and a calculator to help convert fractions to decimals and percents (since probability is shown in all three ways).

It was exciting to see the kids really get into it--the roars of disappointment when the big money came off the board, or the huge cheers when $0.01 or $25 came off. They laughed at my phony conversation with the bankers, and nearly everyone was engaged all day. It was a rousing success.

Thinking Ahead

I would have liked to give them maybe five probability word problems for homework as an informal assessment. We are working on the measurement project I posted earlier this week, and their focus should be on that. Instead, we will have an alternative assessment on Monday. In keeping with my no-multiple-choice-test policy, I am thinking we will create mini-posters (Idea #1 in my book Ten Cheap Lessons) for this and the rest of this unit.

If we had more time, I would like have students create their own probability game, or adapt an existing game to include probability calculations. This would encourage higher order thinking and make it more memorable for the long term, as well as provide a game they could later play for review.

As I look to next year, I'm also looking for ways to incorporate compound probability into our game or post-game follow up, since those questions often pop up on standardized tests.

If you like this idea and the others posted here on I Want to Teach Forever, please check out my new book, Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom. It's available now at and coming soon to bookstores everywhere. As always, please contact me with your feedback and questions. Thank you!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Project Idea: Measurement, Volume & Surface Area

We recently lost four days of instruction to benchmark testing before we were able to finish our unit on measurement. The benchmark did show that we needed more work on this objective, which I could have told you myself. Luckily though, it means I can justify continuing work on this same topic to my department (since we hadn't scheduled enough time for it in the first place).

I was planning on review and assessment of the more difficult parts of the objective, but I've adopted a no multiple choice test policy for the rest of the month at least. The students have had enough pencil and paper testing for a while, so I created a comprehensive project that will address everything they need to know.

As I discussed two weeks ago in Lesson Idea: Hands-On Surface Area and Volume, we had previously measured real objects, drawn nets, and calculated surface area and volume in class. Unfortunately many students didn't fully complete those assignments or did them incorrectly. Before we even started this unit, I had already decided to do a large scale, hands-on project at the end of the unit, but it wasn't until I had time to daydream during the benchmarks that all the pieces came together.

In short, students will find two real objects: a prism or cylinder (easy to find) and a pyramid, cone or cube (more difficult to find and work with). Then, they'll measure the dimensions, draw a net, find formulas for and calculate total surface area (TSA), lateral surface area (LSA), and volume for each object. Finally, they'll dilate the dimensions by 3 and by 1/2 and recalculate TSA, LSA and volume and review how to do simple problems of filling or emptying objects and a given rate.

All of this information will go on a half-size science project board that will later be displayed in the main lobby of our school for everyone to see. They'll attach their objects (if possible), create a title, and include a few sentences about "What We Learned" in addition to including all of the information calculated.

The enclosed project outline is designed to be easy to follow and mainly self-directed. I divided the work into Week 1: Collect Your Data and Week 2: Create Your Poster Board. I plan on giving them at least one day in class next week to work, so I can answer questions, reteach, and motivate them to stay on track.

I included these sample layouts for their project boards. On the enclosed outline, these spaces are left intentionally blank so you can fill in your own, but my hand-drawn samples are included below.

I designed this as a group project due to the amount of work and consideration of the heavy workload of their other classes, as well as a motivational tool. I also included "Completed by" underneath each section to remind students to split up the work and keep track of who's doing what.

We'll see how this project works out, as this is the first time I am trying this, but I am confident it will yield better results than the poor job I did last year on this topic. As always, please send your feedback and comments here or at teachforever AT gmail DOT com.

UPDATE: See the results of this project here!

For more project ideas and inspiration, check out my book, available now at

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Descent into Madness: Teaching Only to the Test

I never thought it would happen here, but testing madness has taken over my school.

In December, we had an English Language Arts benchmark, preparing for the real test in February. We were told initially we would be testing all four core subjects, only to learn at the last minute that we would test only ELA. Since we already had the days set aside in our lesson plans, the math department decided to use that time, albeit in regular classes, to complete a benchmark (the 2004 release test).

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, our students did a good job. Their scores were more than twice that of my students at the same point last year, which I thought was a huge improvement. I took it to mean my students were better prepared coming in, and that I did a better job this fall semester than I had the previous year. I also took it to mean my students would do better when the real test came around in April than they had the previous year. I was glad the testing was over, and that we could move forward when we started the spring semester in January.

Thus my surprise when I was told that we would be taking four days in January for more benchmark testing. I argued in the department chair meeting that we didn't need another test because we just took one, and that our scores had improved from the previous year. What else did we need to prove? Unfortunately not only did anyone speak up to support me, but my co-chair actually spoke out against me!

She argued that the students and new, inexperienced teachers needed practice being in the testing environment. Both of those arguments are completely ludicrous. Our students have been taking these tests every year they've been in school! As for the teachers, their role is limited to reading from a script and then watching the kids take the test to make sure they don't cheat--that's it. We're not exactly asking them to read Gravity's Rainbow, okay?

Then I had to endure a department meeting where almost everyone declared how the December benchmark wasn't accurate at all. Really? Then why did we plan our entire spring semester based on the results from that benchmark? Why were we taking all of our planning periods to calculate results and write reports on students' performance by objective and overall if the test was so meaningless? Even worse, some of them declared that scores would go up. Who cares? If you are in this business for test scores, it's time to find another profession. If you're obsessed to the point that you feel all this benchmark testing is necessary, you've lost sight of our purpose as teachers.

I was concerned that the students were stressed and starting to get burnt out on testing, and that we lost four complete days of instructional time. I wondered why we would once again spend an entire day sitting in the same classroom when most students were done with their test before lunch. My worst fear, of course, is that someone will want to do this again before the real test--and I will absolutely raise hell to prevent that from happening.

I haven't yet seen the results, but I would venture to guess they've increased just enough for everybody to give themselves a pat on the back. Maybe that will give me the opportunity to, you know, teach something.

Of course, benchmark testing alone does not constitute madness. Additional symptoms include:
  • Students being pulled from electives 2-3 times a week at minimum
  • Constant TAKS-style multiple choice testing in the classroom, meaning less open-ended, problem solving, or higher order thinking questions
  • Teachers giving up their conference period to "tutor" a subject they're not certified to teach
  • More tests to come (presumably)
It reminds me of the craziness of a former school, where as the test approached, the madness was palpable:
  • My department wanted me to give my students 20-40 question multiple choice tests every week.
  • The principal instituted something called a "power schedule", where classes were cut to 35 minutes and the last 2 hours of the day was spent doing test prep (again, teachers teaching subjects they're not certified in).
  • Number of full school days spent taking practice tests: 15.
What really constitute the madness, though, is an inability to explain why this is happening. We were doing far worse overall last year and didn't adopt any of these excessive measures. In truth, our scores won't technically stay with us next year, because our high school is being dissolved and replaced with a "new" school.

Yes, we did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals last year because one of our subgroups, our 10th grade Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, had a low passing rate. We met standards in all other areas. Instead of focusing on this one group, everyone is feeling the wrath. By the way--this year's 10th grade LEP students performed far better than their predecessors did on their 9th grade exams--which is usually the best predictor of their future success on these tests.

I didn't write about this to vent (okay, maybe a little), but to ask a few critical questions that we as educators need to answer:
  1. How can we fix the tests themselves? A recent commentary in the Austin-American Statesman forsees a future where Texas eliminates the TAKS and replaced it with small, periodic, online assessments on specific objectives.
  2. How can we prepare students for standardized tests without teaching to the test? What I've learned about the Rio Grande Valley is that school districts here have no idea how to do this. Districts create strategies focused solely on increasing passing rates, and when they're successful, everyone else copies them. They'll often implement conflicting or redundant ideas because it worked somewhere else, making things more difficult for teachers and students.
  3. How can we prepare students for college with so much focus on standardized tests? With so many standards to teach, and tests often based mostly on material covered in previous years, there's little time to give them what they need to succeed in college. It's no surprise that in Texas, half of students entering college need to take remedial courses (among Hispanic students, it's 63%).
  4. How does a dedicated teacher survive in such an environment? There's a reason most teachers leave the profession within five years, and this system is one of biggest.
I wrote about this problem in my new book, in a chapter entitled Preparing for the Test Without Teaching to the Test. It includes ideas for teachers trying to work around the challenges of high-stakes testing. Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom is available now at