Saturday, April 26, 2008

Test Prep Idea #2: Word Wall Review

In preparation for this week's 9th grade TAKS mathematics test (Thursday, April 1st), I adapted my word wall for TAKS review. I first edited the list of words a bit, focusing on terms and groups of terms that were most common and required the most review.

I asked students to pick 5 words they didn't know, write a "tutorial" showing how to solve problems related to those terms, and find a couple of TAKS questions on the topic (scoured from our workbooks, textbook and practice tests). The idea was that the tutorial should be short and simple, similar to the style of notes I give in class. Ideally, at the end of the project I'd have at least one good tutorial for each term, which could be compiled into one last review for the students.

We took two days last week to do this in class, but a widespread apathy bordering on lethargy resulted in students doing a poor job or no job at all (hence the end of my motivational experiment). I asked them to write everything in their own words and create their own examples; they didn't even have their own notes and ended up copying straight from my originals or the textbook. They missed the point.

I don't have enough quality tutorials with which to create another review for my students, and honestly, they haven't given me a whole lot of reasons to want to go that extra mile. Maybe that make me a bad teacher. Maybe it's just the stress of this time of year. Or maybe it's not my fault. I don't know the answer. I only hope that it helped the students who were willing to put in the work.

You could adapt this idea for your classroom in a number of ways:
  • If you have more time, you could ask students to create their own tutorial for every word on the Word Wall (as long as your wall has 20-25 terms/groups of terms that have been whittled down to the bare essentials). This ensures they cover everything.
  • Cut out the "find 2 test-style questions" part. Give students another practice test with maybe one good question on each topic and allow them to use their tutorials while working on the problems.
  • Instead of this project, have students create a set of flash cards for every word wall term. The term on one side and a concise example or explanation on the other.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Motivational Experiment: Week 3

The following is an open letter to my hair.
Dear Lohawk:

Well, it was good while it lasted. We really got the kids motivated for a while. You had everybody at school talking; teachers, administrators and students alike. Many students spoke of dying you different colors if they did well on the test, or the glue that would be needed for future liberty spikes. Students from other classes wondered if you were the result of me losing a bet (I told them instead that I had been attacked by a bear). Good times, good times.

Unfortunately, you and I both knew it wasn't meant to last. Sooner or later, the kids would take you, and more importantly what you stood for, for granted. Sadly, that time is now. It is time to end our experiment.

I hope we have the opportunity to work together again in the future.


Mr. D
Read more about this experiment here:

Friday, April 18, 2008

Innovation in Education Survey

I received this email a couple of weeks ago and wanted to encourage others to participate:
We are a team of graduate students studying innovation and change at the University of Minnesota who are researching how much influence teachers do, or do not have, with regard to decisions concerning teaching, learning, curriculum, assessment, and overall public education innovation. We are studying "forums" such as blogs, where people gather to share values. For a variety of reasons, we have been unable to find an easy conduit to initiate a discussion with teachers. As a result, we have turned to blogs, such as your own - an innovation in itself - to attempt to engage you in dialog.

We have set up The Education Innovation Blog, as a place where we hope to gather your stories, thoughts and opinions on innovation and creativity in education - both what would benefit you as a teacher and what would benefit your students. The blog includes a link to a 10-minute survey that we have developed. We hope this survey will serve as a starting point for discussions. We would very much appreciate your taking the survey and sharing this request with as many of your colleagues as possible. If you find this survey/blog interesting, please post it on your blog so other teachers can see it. ALL SURVEY RESPONSES WILL BE CONFIDENTIAL! The survey will close as of April 30th, however the blog will remain active and results and discussion of this project will be posted there.

Your postings to the blog will be public. If you prefer to remain anonymous, please post them to our e-mail address,, we will strip them of identifying information and post your remarks anonymously.
If you have any questions, please e-mail us at Thank you, we hope you will choose to participate and assist us in our research!

Ben Cashen, Mike Fink, Kristi Mueller, Jen Trochinski, Sarah Waldemar, Wendy Wustenberg, Kun Yang
I completed the survey today, which asked questions about barriers to and encouragement of innovation in the classroom. Unfortunately it looks like there hasn't been any participation on their blog, and I suppose I should email these poor graduate students and tell them why:
  1. They picked the worst time of the year to do this--it's testing season!
  2. For all intents and purposes, a blog is not a forum. If they want to create a dialogue, they should create a simple social network or actual discussion forum.
  3. The reason they have not found "an easy conduit to initiate a discussion with teachers" is because as much as teachers like to share and collaborate, no such conduit exists. This is partly on purpose; teachers are wary to participate in any online "forum" because they feel they can never let their guard down, lest a errant student, parent or administrator with an agenda wanders into the fray and finds something they don't like. This is why teachers disguise, hide or exclude themselves on blogs, forums and social networks. The other reason is that no one has come along to solve these problems. I am grateful for the community of education bloggers I have learned about over the past year, but it still lacks what these students are seeking.
I hope, however, that some readers will participate. The survey can be found here on the Education Innovation Blog.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

167th Carnival of Education at The CEA Blog

The 167th edition of the Carnival of Education is up at The CEA Blog. Among the links is my recent article entitled Why We Need to Change the Way We Teach Math. Thank you to Mr. Hayes and the Columbus Education Association for hosting and continuing the fine tradition that is the CoE.

For more about the CoE itself, visit The Education Wonks!

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Motivational Experiment: Week 2

This is week 2 of my motivational experiment. I am rocking a mohawk for the first time in my life, all in the name of keeping my students focused and motivated as we approach our big test on May 1st. It has worked amazingly well, with only one small hiccup along the way.

On Wednesday, my last class pushed the very limits of my patience, to the point I was ready to end the experiment. It was only due to the excellent work of the rest of my students earlier in the day that I didn't shave the whole thing off, a message the class in question received quite clearly the next day. I don't think they realized what they had done; they were apologizing profusely and pleading with me not to shave it off after I told them what was up.

I told them that while I knew some of them probably didn't care about it, that was fine. The important thing to realize is that the mohawk is a symbol, a symbol of how far I am willing to go to ensure their success, but also of my goodwill. When the mohawk goes, they now understand, so does my goodwill, and they don't even want to know what happens next.

The next stage of the experiment will be to set some goals for the test itself, and some "rewards" in the form of dying my hair various colors.

See what happened:
Week 3
Reflections on a Mohawk

Test Prep Idea #1: Take-Home Test w/ Key

Instead of spending full class periods completing release tests or other practice tests in preparation for our big state test on May 1st, I decided to spend class time on specific topics or more engaging, memorable review games. I do of course want my students to practice (and to identify areas of weakness), so I am following a successful blueprint I used last year.

This week I gave my students a take-home practice test, drawn from a TAKS prep workbook. It is the same length as the real test (52 questions) and covers everything. For your purposes, you could use any full length practice or release test as your source.

Students work on the test at home or whenever they are finished with their daily classwork. They have about a week to complete it. More importantly, their grade is based on making corrections and resubmitting it after I've checked and returned it to them. I don't see the point in giving them practice tests in a high-stakes environment; they've done enough of those already, and since we have the luxury of time, there's no excuse not to go back and figure out how to do every single question on there. If that means everyone resubmits the practice test and gets 100, so be it. The grade itself is inconsequential--did they learn what they needed to learn?

The only thing I added to the test, besides the idea of automatic retests, was a key (see above). Last year my students were lacking in test taking skills, especially the idea of skipping difficult questions and returning to them later. So I went through the test and marked off easy, medium, hard and recently or not yet covered questions. This was subjective but based on my impression of their grasp of each topic when previously taught.

When comparing last year's original version of this test, I found that I was marking questions "easy" this year that were "medium" or "hard" last year. My students seem to be better prepared and more hardworking this year--but I'd like to think some of that change can be attributed to my growth as a math teacher. In turn, my expectations have risen and I expect them to find more of the test easy.

I told my students to use the key to guide them, starting with the easy ones before working their way to the hardest. "This is what I want you to do on the real test," I told them, "so you won't let a few hard questions stress you out and affect how you do on the rest of the test."

I know students appreciate this kind of help, because last year students of other teachers asked me for the take-home test because their teachers hadn't provided one. This year, I convinced all of my fellow 9th grade Algebra teachers to give students the same opportunity, so I know each student will get the practice they need.

This idea and many others can be found in my book, Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom. It's available on Amazon and B&N today.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Funbrain Math Games for ELL Students

Twice a week, my fellow math teachers and I give up our planning period to tutor a group of our LEP (ELL) students who need help to pass our standardized test (the dreaded TAKS). We've been told to do a lot of interesting, engaging activities (with Matchbox cars, for example) to set it apart from their regular math class (which of course is incredibly boring and focuses solely on the big test).

In order to up the ante, I decided to take them out of the classroom once again. We went to the library on Thursday to use the Internet and learn by playing games.

I was inspired by reading Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day (for Teaching ESL, ELL & EFL), which was featured in my edition of the Carnival of Education last week. Larry features sites that cater to all levels of ELLs in all subjects, most utilizing innovative Web 2.0 applications. It's clear to me that the sites featured aren't just the future of language education, but a harbinger of where education is headed. In truth, I want to learn about and integrate many of the tools I've seen into my classroom in the future.

That being said, with my students I started with a simple and low-tech suggestion from Larry's math page: math games on In general the games are geared towards elementary and middle school students, but my students are lacking in many of the basic skills covered in the games. I perused the list and narrowed it down to skills they'll need heading into the "big test":
  1. Penguin Waiter - Students calculate percent tip, and on the hardest level work backwards to determine the original bill.
  2. Guess the Number Plus - Students solve simple equations written as word problems. Turning word problems into equations and/or solving them is at the heart of the TAKS test.
  3. Line Jumper - Working on the hardest levels, students add positive and negative numbers with the aid of a number line. This is one of those basic skills they should have learned years ago, but even my Pre-AP students forget how to do this constantly.
  4. Math Baseball - With Algebra Style set to "Yes", students solve elementary versions of addition and subtraction equations.
  5. Shape Surveyor - Students find area and perimeter of given rectangles. Again, while this may seem too easy for them, I can't tell you how often I ask them to do exactly this and not everyone can immediately recall how.
  6. Soccer Shootout - This is perhaps the most important of these games, because the kids have to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions to win the game. Fraction is the most dreaded word in our mathematical vocabulary, apparently, and no one has ever taught them how to do it (which has a lot to do with the way our country teaches math).
I asked them to try all of the games on all of the levels, and to explore the Flash-based Math Arcade as well. I wasn't sure how things would go without giving them much structure other than a list of games to try, but I found each student choosing a topic that they knew they needed practice in.

It was so successful that I've planned follow-up trips to the computer lab to try other engaging web tools next week. I plan to use other resources found on Larry's site to really bring my subject to life.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A motivational tool off the top of my head

I'm going to go to school tomorrow with my hair looking like this. I cut it this weekend for a theme party with the idea that I could simply lop off the rest before Monday. At the party were several teachers, all of whom asked the same questions:

"Your administration is okay with that!?"
"You've been going to school like that!?"
"What do your students think!?"

After the party, I got to thinking about how it would be pretty shocking to walk in like this on Monday. The last few weeks of school have been especially trying--motivation approaching the big test is waning instead of increasing. I feel stuck in a rut and so do many of my students. What better way to inject some much needed excitement and energy back into class than a stunt like this?

I've decided to make this a motivational experiment. "I want so badly for you to do well that I'm willing to keep this ridiculous thing on my head until the test," I'll tell my students. "All I ask is that everyone puts in their best effort every day. If I'm not satisfied with your effort, I'll just cut it off." It's silly and simple, which is exactly why it will work.

As far as the administration goes, as long as I tell them that I'm using this to get kids to do better on the test, they'll not only condone it, but probably encourage it! After all, we must get test scores up by any means necessary!

See what happened:
Week 2
Week 3
Reflections on a Mohawk

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

165th Carnival of Education: Testing Season Edition

The midway is open... welcome to the 165th Carnival of Education!

Despite the hilarity you endured (or dished out) yesterday, the joke is over: it's April. It's the beginning of testing season, that time of year when teacher and student stress reaches its perilous apex. If you're anything like me, you need a little inspiration, a bit of levity, and some good ideas to keep you going towards the end of the school year.

The submissions I selected concern several themes that interest me greatly: inspiration, standardized testing insanity, amusing myself, ideas to help your students inside and outside your classroom, and quality professional development. I hope that you find these as interesting as I did, and that afterwards you explore the rest of the site. Thank you for visiting, and enjoy!

We have to start with my favorite music teacher, Joel from So You Want To Teach?, who dug out 50 Reasons To Love Your Job As A Teacher from his archives. I also have to give him props for catching me hook, line and sinker with an April Fools' post that said exactly the opposite!

Todd Goldfarb
presents How To Find Your True Purpose posted at We The Change, saying, "A wonderful and personal article about finding your inner purpose...enjoy!"

eduwonkette presents eduwonkette: Cool Teachers You Should Know: Joel Blecha, The Neighborhood School posted at eduwonkette, who writes:
"I heeded your call for inspirational stories by submitting this profile, which is part of a series called "Cool Teachers You Should Know." The goal is to profile and celebrate the work that exceptional teachers are doing in schools every day; often, the profiled teacher will also provide advice to other teachers. Please nominate one of your colleagues in the future..."
Visit eduwonkette to nominate someone for future editions.

Dave Saba reminds me of one of my favorite parables in Starfish, change and data posted at DoE- Dave on Ed.

Fruitpunch, a student studying in Curacao, keeps things positive in Winners make things happen, Losers let things happen posted at Fruit Punch Diary. Read some of the other recent posts there, you'll find the same theme of hope and positivity.

kellyc found inspiration in a special program called Destination Imagination posted at Pass the Torch.

Finally, let's make sure to recognize more great teachers: Linda Bress Silbert, Ph.D. and Alvin J. Silbert, Ed.D. presents Special Ed Teacher Gets ‘em Talking posted at Our Educational Books, saying, "This special education teacher gets kudos from parents and students for her dedication."

...And a Much Needed Laugh!
While we may have just missed out on April Fools' Day, here's an April Fools poem to share with students entitled Good Morning, Dear Students posted at The Median Sib.

NYC Educator
presents When You're Having Fun... posted at NYC Educator, saying, "Time flies when you're having fun." I have a clock in the back of the room that is permanently set to 1:25 pm. I thoroughly enjoy debating my students about its accuracy:
Students: "Sir, why don't you get some batteries?"

Me: "What are you talking about? I just put some in there yesterday!"

Students: "But it says there's five minutes left, and there's like an hour!"

Me: "Sometimes math is so much fun that minutes seem like hours." presents Oh, Crap. An English Teacher Who Can?t Spell posted at Lorem Ipsum, saying, "When you get a student teacher who can't spell, you know they probably shouldn't become an English teacher." This reminds me of a story from my friend Dave. During a department meeting one day, the chair was so excited to share "a great new word: genray!" Dave couldn't figure out what genray was, especially since no one else knew they were actually talking about genre. He made it a point to teach his students the real word by using it as much as possible with added emphasis, "we're going to read a new GENRE today... what GENRE is this story from?".

This isn't exactly the type of student engagement I was thinking of, but apparently tutoring English in Hong Kong is all about sex appeal (thanks to Matt Johnston of Going to the Mat).

Finally, here's our obligatory adorable student story, courtesy of Mister Teacher of Learn Me Good, called Oh, the Corners You'll See!.

Testing Madness
The insanity of this time of year touches everybody:
  • Bill Ferriter presents It's All About the Benjamins. . . posted at The Tempered Radical, saying, "In this post, Bill Ferriter at The Tempered Radical tackles teacher evaluation and compensation----and admits to being fed up with the single salary schedule!" Bill discusses how test scores are tied to evaluation and, in turn, how teachers are paid. My high school received a grant from the state that was tied in part to test scores and was the subject of a heated debate.
Things to Teach Your Kids (besides your curriculum)
Alvaro Fernandez presents Sleep, Tetris, Memory and the Brain posted at SharpBrains, saying, "Why sleep is so important for learning." I tell my students about this constantly, despite the fact that I don't properly use this knowledge myself.

I like to talk to my students about scams and ripoffs in the real world as frequently as possible, so EdWonk's post about his daughter receiving an avalanche of "Who's-Who in American High Schools" and other such solicitations is worth a read: 'Tis The Season For Parents And Kids To Be Scammed is posted at The Education Wonks (not coincidentally, the home of the COE).

Debt Freedom Fighter presents How to Pay For College without Borrowing on Student Loans posted at Discover Debt Freedom!.

Raymond presents Student Credit Card Rewards posted at Money Blue Book. Children don't learn enough about financial planning in or out of school, so both of these last two articles can form the basis of some great lessons.

Five Cheap Lessons From Other People
In January, I published a book entitled Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom. My goal was to provide ten ideas that could be used on any topic in any subject. Most of my best ideas over the years have been adapted from or inspired by other teachers and other subjects, so here's five good ones for you and/or your students (in no particular order):
  1. Jeremy Zongker presents 90 Low Cost or No Cost Activities to Entertain Your Kids All Summer Long posted at Destroy Debt.
  2. This lesson will work for homeschooling and traditional schools: Joy Miller presents Teaching About The Workplace posted at Homeschooling for the Real World
  3. Larry Ferlazzo presents ESL/EFL Sister Classes Project posted at Larry Ferlazzo's Websites Of The Day For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL, saying, "This post discusses, and links to, a collaboration of students spanning seven countries. I thought people might find it interesting, and maybe provoke some to think about how and if they could do something similar."
  4. char breaks down how to write an essay in language your students can understand in Preparing for an Essay Exam posted at Psych Matters.
  5. historyiselementary thinks about how we try to engage students in Repeat After Me...Multimedia Modality posted at History Is Elementary, saying, "In light of a recent article published online at ESchool News I'm going to be reviewing all of my teacher-created handouts and slideshows to see if they conform to research findings."
Conversation Starters (*not for use during department/faculty meetings)
  • rightwingprof presents Zeroes Matter posted at Right Wing Nation. At most schools in my area, the lowest grade a student can receive for a grading period is a 50. I once met a teacher who decided this meant they shouldn't give any grades lower than a 50, even for assignments they didn't turn in! Not surprisingly, it was extremely difficult to NOT pass the class. This teacher actually argued with me about how much this practice skewed the students' grades!
  • Katie Beals presents Right-brain biases against school boys posted at Out In Left Field, saying, "OILF is a blog for left-brainers and parents of left-brainers. It discusses left-brain needs, promotes left-brain strengths, and monitors right-brain biases (esp. Reform Math, Constructivism, and cooperative learning) in education and elsewhere."
Professional Development and Ideas to Bring to School
Those of you who have read my site for a while know that I haven't had the best luck in finding quality professional development. So while you won't get any stipends or free food for any of these submissions, you get to read them at your leisure and pick and choose what's relevant to you.
  • If you read nothing else here, please read this submission. Our female students are so often the victim of so much inappropriate behavior, even while in school. Every teacher should read this and consider their reaction to even seemingly minor incidents: Marcella Chester presents Socialization Which Sets Up Sex Predator/Passive Victim Model posted at abyss2hope: A rape survivor's zigzag journey into the open, saying, "So often when adults are trying to smooth over conflict they ask girls to passively accept violence or disrespect of their personal boundaries without thinking about how that pattern of response can be used against the child."
  • Denise presents In between sneezes? posted at Let's play math!, saying, "Went browsing on YouTube, found three math videos. One cool trick, one really good laugh, and one sparked a comment discussion about how to teach."
What The Media Says About Our Profession
I often feel that our profession is presented, like most things in the news, in the most negative way possible. There's not a day that goes by without a story about student/teacher relationships, verbal and physical abuse, or other inappropriate behavior. Sometimes the administrators or district officials themselves are the problem, but it gives our entire profession a bad name.

Archvillain presents Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (part II) posted at A Dark and Sinister Force for Good, saying, "What can we (the People) do to stop this nonsense?"

Laura Huertero presents Aren't teachers awful? | Huerter0's Xanga Site - Weblog posted at Teaching (or at least trying to), saying, "A recent string of Pre-Teena comics has cost me my daily chuckle at the expense of silly youngsters and cast an unjustly critical glare at the teaching profession. Herein, I object."

Dave Johnston presents two recent news items painting the whole system as corrupt and broken in What's Wrong With This Picture? posted at Friends of Dave.

* * *

That concludes this edition. Please take a look around the rest of I Want to Teach Forever and check out my book before you go! I welcome comments below or email me at teachforever [at] gmail [dot] com.

Submit your blog article to the next edition of Carnival of Education using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page. The next edition of the Carnival will be hosted by The Elementary Educator, so stop by today!