Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All apologies

I've noticed that the number of visitors has been increasing the last couple of weeks, as teachers are preparing for the new school year. I apologize that this happened to coincide with a complete drop off in my posting. I don't like to make excuses, but I have two good reasons (I think):
  1. Teacher inservice started two weeks ago, and school starts Thursday, keeping me busy while trying to keep my regular life in order.
  2. My laptop died last week, limiting my time online.
I have been storing up some ideas that I'll be sharing over the next few days. I've already been working on a new student survey and contemplating fresh approaches for this new first day of school. Stay tuned, and thank you for coming back!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer PD: Learn Cutting-Edge Educational Jargon

Have you started inservice or professional development at your campus yet? This is the time of year when school districts start setting the agenda for the new school year, championing exciting new concepts that are guaranteed to work better than the exciting new concepts you heard about last year!

Thus, you must be prepared with the kind of educational jargon that will assure you a bright future, perhaps within the district but even more likely as a well-paid educational consultant. Those people are masters of this kind of thing. How can I do this, you wonder? Look no further than the Educational Jargon Creator!

Here are five potential phrases to sprinkle into your conversations these next few weeks:
  1. "This year we must aim to maximize site-based mastery learning..."
  2. "Did we take the time to benchmark technology-enhanced communities before this plan was put into action?"
  3. "What guiding questions are we using to drive peer-based processes this year?"
  4. "I envision cross-curricular initiatives..."
  5. "...they can innovate classroom-based models in a way that we could never before imagine!"
Develop your own at the Educational Jargon Creator.

Thanks to NYC Educator!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ask Mr D: Ideas for Teaching the Metric System

This question was emailed to me by reader Laura, who had enjoyed my 50 Cheap Mini-Lessons for Teachers. I don't get nearly enough questions as it stands, so hopefully this can become a regular feature here on the website. I love to be challenged to come up with new ideas!
Question: Do you have to teach the metric system? I've been told that it used to part of 6/7 math in my district but it has been cut - so now the kids don't get it until my class (8th science). I am not necessarily going for "understanding" early in the year - I hope that as they use it over the year they'll get more comfortable with it before "the test" in May. However, I'm looking for some strategies - mnemonics, poems, hand tricks, anything - to just help them get by until it sinks in. Thanks.

Answer: I don't have to teach the metric system, but I don't think you'll have too much trouble. If you teach them what the most often used prefixes mean (milli, centi, deci, kilo) and that the system always goes by tens, no matter what type of measurement it is, they'll get it pretty quickly. You might want to do a small scale project like the Independent/Dependent Variables poster where they have to show those commonly used measurements. I would guess your state exam probably asks them to do conversions (which they usually get a chart for) and for appropriate units of measurements, for example:

If I wanted to measure a football field, what unit of measurement would be most appropriate?
  1. centimeter
  2. millimeter
  3. meter
  4. kilometer
So, you could have them do a poster where they would draw examples of real life things that measure roughly 1 cm, 1 mm, 1km, etc or just an example of an item you would use that to measure. It would be something rather simple that they would be able to remember.

Another other key to getting kids to memorize something like that is that every time a question comes up that mentions those units, that you ask them what they mean (i.e."This question is talking about decimeters, how many centimeters is that?" or "Is that bigger or smaller than a meter?" or "Let's convert this to mm, cm, m and km just so we can remember what it means"). When I taught US History, the Texas 8th grade test had five key dates that students absolutely had to memorize, because they had been mentioned without fail on every test since it was created. So when any one of the five came up, I had them quickly rattle off all five. We also had five bulletin boards around the room dedicated to each of the years (each of which was of course a jumping off point to many other people, events and issues of importance). They always did well on those questions.

The last key, especially in a science class, is to remind them of the real life importance of getting measurements right and converting correctly. For example, there was that early Mars mission that failed because the the lander was designed to use metric units but calculations for landing were done with standard units. Also, you can talk about the Hubble Telescope and how the tiniest of mismeasurements caused it not to work and millions of dollars (and additional space missions) to fix it.

Now having said all that, you have to think about why exactly the metric system was cut from those previous courses. The answer is probably "it's not tested," which of course shouldn't be a legitimate reason, but is to everyone feeling the pressure of standardized testing. You have a long list of standards to teach yourself, and you need to critically evaluate where the metric system falls in terms of importance. I'm not saying don't teach it, but you should consider how much time you will spend on this topic. Perhaps you can integrate it with another topic to save time. Make sure you also look at what kind of questions they'll be asked on standardized tests, and that your lessons at least cover that material. You also need to think about what they'll need to help them in future classes and in college and work that into your lessons wherever possible.
Response: Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question so thoroughly. I
was actually going to open the "unit" (2 days :) ) on the metric
system using the Mars Orbiter mishap. I was also thinking of doing
some silly activity where we create 2 measurement systems on different
"bases" (like one of the larger boy's finger span versus one of the
smaller girl's hand span) to reiterate the importance of both a
standard system as well as accuracy in measurement.
I told her that was a great idea, as I had heard many math teachers using similar lessons with great success. Thanks to Laura for letting me share this, and don't be afraid to ask questions!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Questions to Ask Yourself to Be Ready for the First Day of School

I've been doling out a lot of advice recently, so I thought I would frame this post a little differently. Most books and websites geared towards helping you prepare for the first days of school list questions to ask yourself. As long as you've considered what your answers might be, you're well on your way to being ready for the new year.

I've read many of these types of lists myself, so forgive me if I'm telling you something you already know or sounding like a poor man's version of somebody else. I'll err on the side of caution and say that these are all the well-worn ideas, and I am merely collecting them here for you:

Have you done your summer reading? Here's your abbreviated list (with plenty of time to catch up):
These two books alone will have you better prepared than the average teacher by far.

Where are your students going to sit? After you've decided your seating arrangement and have your rosters***, create a seating chart. Arranging them alphabetically is fine, because it's helpful for learning names, but I recommend starting at the back corner of the room and working your way forward. This way, the kids at the end of the alphabet (who probably end up in the back of every other class) get to sit up front for once. This sets your class apart, which makes it more interesting for them. I find it helpful to put numbers on the back of the chairs (so they won't be easily removed) so you can help students find their seats very quickly (you can post a list with their numbers on an overhead, for example). ***If you don't have your rosters until early the first day, you can quickly make a seating chart and get kids sitting where you want them to by putting their names on post-it notes on their seat-to-be. Having the desks numbered also makes this easier.

How will you find out where your students are at academically? What kind of diagnostic assessment will you use? You may not like testing, but this is the one time of year you can ask a lot of your students with few complaints or distractions. It could be done the second day, depending on your answers to the remaining questions. Giving students a diagnostic assessment immediately (and telling them why you are doing it) shows that you mean business, that you will expect them to work every day, and that you know exactly what you're doing.

What kind of syllabus or course information are you going to give them? You need to tell students what you'll be studying, why you're studying it, and how you're going to do so (briefly, of course). What kind of goals and expectations have you set? You can simply read aloud from a concise handout or make things more interesting by creating a video/PowerPoint, showing examples of student work from previous years, or doing role plays to demonstrate what they need to know and do in your classroom.

What do you need to know about your students to help them be successful? I am a big proponent of student surveys, but you should be careful to ask only questions you need to know the answer to. For example, do you really need to know their favorite color or TV show? Kids can smell busywork from a mile away. Maybe you need their class schedules. If so, do you really need to know the entire thing? Aren't you only available only one or two periods a day? Ask them for the period(s) when you are available, so you can pull them out for conferences or get important information to them when necessary.

How will you encourage parental involvement from the beginning? Consider sending home your syllabus or a parent survey. You can ask them about how their child learns, how they can help in the classroom, and for detailed contact information.

What will students be expected to do every day in your class? Establish your basic routines and procedures. Tell them what to do when they first come in. Where are things kept? What will a typical class period look like? Where will books, handouts and notebooks be? What's your policy for the restroom, tardiness, and absences? You can't cover everything, but you need to emphasize the things most important to you on that first day. Start with the basics and add more each day thereafter.

What are you going to put on your walls and bulletin boards? Leave plenty of space for student work. Their work serves as a model of what you expect and gives students a sense of ownership as well. Limit reference material to stuff you'll be covering soon or referring to often. Rotate those kinds of displays every so often. You might even consider a word wall. Are you going to have a bulletin board with basic school information like bell schedules, school calendars/rules/announcements, and the aforementioned goals and expectations? Is there a bulletin board space to recognize student achievement (like Students of the Week) or where kids can see their grades anonymously? Show them where these things are and explain the significance.

Are you prepared for the unique set of disruptions throughout the first day(s)? The list of disruptions for the first day (probably first 2 weeks minimum) is considerable: students arriving late or having their schedules changed, interruptions by staff, faculty and administrators, and non-stop announcements over the intercom. Relax, it's not something you can control. Just be ready to be flexible and accommodating those first few days. Don't let it stress you out.

What are you going to do with any extra time you have? Do you want to do icebreakers? Teach a mini-lesson? Think of something you can do to build genuine excitement for the rest of the year. Remember that it's better to plan more than you can possibly do in one period than to be left with your proverbial pants down around your proverbial ankles.

Have you thought about your health and well-being? What are you going to do about breakfast and lunch? What time do you need to leave in the morning (depending on when you want to get to school)? How will you keep yourself from getting stressed? Have you reflected upon lessons learned in previous years, or from your outside-of-school experiences?

The better answers you have to these questions, the better prepared you will be for the first day and beyond. Veteran teachers: please share other questions teachers should ask themselves to get ready for the first day. Thank you, and good luck!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Why California's plan for Algebra for every 8th grader won't solve anything

California recently decided that every 8th grade student will be tested in algebra, ostensibly forcing every 8th grader into an algebra class whether they're prepared or not. Proponents say students need to take more challenging math earlier in school to prepare them for the future economy, to help American students catch up to their peers around the world. They also say that having some students take the course in 8th grade and others wait would create a great inequity that the latter group would never recover from.

The truth is that this plan won't solve anything. Students who are unprepared for the course will fail, and become more averse to and frustrated with math than they already are. This policy raises the bar without giving the students any tools to get over it! The majority of students I've had either had no confidence in their math abilities, hated math, lacked the basic skills needed to tackle the course, or all three. The plan will compound existing problems, and force schools to focus more on standardized test prep at the expense of actual learning, which is all thanks to the well-known limitations of No Child Left Behind.

The real problem, which is not addressed at all by the mandate is that the standards in all lower grades are too broad and detailed. I wrote about this earlier this year (see Why we need to change the way we teach math), but sadly the issue is still being ignored even in this election year. In the countries that are consistently outperforming us, standards are streamlined so that by the time they reach 8th grade, they have mastered the basic foundations needed to succeed in algebra and beyond. In turn, those countries have more time to spend on problem solving and critical thinking, so that the higher-level thinking required in algebra is easier to grasp.

There are many other problems that need to be addressed, such as our fundamental approach to teaching the subject (which is, in many ways, the heart and soul of this blog), getting students started earlier (via Head Start and other Pre-K programs), and changing the country's perception of math in general.

What I mean by that last part is that while the two are often paired, math has one problem that science increasingly doesn't: it is categorically uncool. The Discovery Channel and its sister stations are making science more "cool" every day, revealing the fascinating science that is everywhere around us. There is no Math Channel; beyond CBS's Numb3rs, there's no digestible, real world math programming aimed at anyone beyond early elementary age. I often imagine what a program about real world math, done in a fun and interesting manner like Mythbusters or Dirty Jobs, might look like. The same goes for video games, one of the great untapped resources for American education, where so many require skills across the spectrum except for math.

California's new stance is at one end of the extreme, but I've taught in many districts at the other, where students don't even have the option to take algebra in 8th grade. Algebra should certainly be offered, and students who are prepared should be encouraged to take it, but it should in no way be mandated or tested across the grade level. Courses that bridge the gap between lower level math and algebra should be developed as well. Unfortunately without fundamental changes to the way math is taught before students reach 8th grade, even those reasonable solutions won't help California reach any of its lofty goals.

Monday, August 4, 2008

What standards do we hold teachers to inside and outside the classroom?

I had a huge argument with a family member today who was offended by a joke I had made. I was on the receiving end of repeated declarations of, "You're a teacher!" with such righteous indignation that I couldn't help but think about the meaning behind that simple sentence. While I've been visiting my family, I've also endured several comments about how my language is also inappropriate and unbecoming a teacher. I understand that teachers are held to a near-impossible standard of behavior, far above politicians and just below Mother Teresa. But I don't necessarily think that standard is fair outside the public sphere.

Full disclosure: Outside of school, I use a lot of language that wouldn't be appropriate there, probably more than the average per capita. Also, and you might want to sit down for this, I'm not a saint! If I wanted to aspire to sainthood, I would have joined a monastery or otherwise sworn myself to a life of poverty. I know what is expected of me in the classroom, and in my community, and I adhere to those standards. When the joke in question was made, I was thousands of miles away from there, with an audience of people I had never met and will never see again. If a teacher curses in a forest and no one is around, does he make a sound?

There's been many cases of teachers fired recently for posting their indiscretions and inappropriate conduct online, in public forums where they were visible to all (i.e. MySpace, Facebook, personal blogs). In the offline world that we inhabit most of the time, where do we draw the line? How much freedom do we have, and how much should we have?

I'm sorry for offending the afforementioned family member, and I'll certainly choose my words more carefully around them. However, I myself was offended at the presumption of how I was supposed to act and what I was allowed to do in private because I am a teacher. I feel like this is an issue teachers are dealing with more and more in today's culture, and I wonder if I am completely wrong.

What do you think? Are teachers resigned to live every moment of their lives as if they were in the classroom, no matter what? Or is there a point where we can stop worrying and learn to love the (occasional) f-bomb? Please post your thoughts.

Friday, August 1, 2008

50 Cheap Mini-Lessons for Teachers: #41-50

Thank you to everyone who's been keeping up with the list all week! I hope that this final set of mini-lessons doesn't disappoint. I'm looking forward to reading your reactions, either as comments or emails. I'd also like everyone reading this to start thinking about what kind of mini-lessons you would want to be able to share with every teacher if you could. I'm planning on collecting those to extend this project. Here we go!
  1. Use music in your classroom. Music stimulates the memory in a powerful way, evoking images and emotions. When you connect a lesson to music, you make it memorable over long term. You can play a song as background music, play an instrument, sing, rap, maybe all of the above! I've been known to bust out my guitar on occasion, and other teachers have had similar success. It is especially useful for things that need to be memorized--I can still sing The Preposition Song I learned in elementary school. Finally, remember that you don't need to be an American Idol prospect in order to perform in front of your students. The fact that you get up there and do it no matter what goes a long way towards investing your students and building a positive classroom culture (see mini-lesson #9).
  2. Figure out how to use cell phones, iPods and portable video game systems to your advantage. Like it or not, integrating this kind of technology (#17) is where education is headed. You can get significantly ahead of the curve if you begin innovating ways to make them useful in the classroom. I understand this is hard for teachers (and especially school districts) to swallow, but I offer this evidence for you to consider:

    I know my school is interested in having students create podcasts, which would be beneficial on so many levels. I also understand that it would be near-impossible to pull off in the places I've worked in the past. Be creative and work within (and around) the confines of the system, and you'll find ways to make this work. For example, you could make materials like podcasts, videos and educational games available on a website you create and ask students to visit it outside of school.
  3. Make college a realistic goal for every student. I'm just guessing here, but I would be willing to bet that for most teachers, the goal of getting a college degree was a foregone conclusion from an early point in their lives. This is not true for a growing number of students, especially those in low-income communities. College is seen as something that only affluent white kids do. Thus the responsibility for preparing them for college both academically and practically falls squarely on us. Just talking about your college experience informally is a good start, and will often lead to discussions where you can talk about how they can afford to go and what they need to do to get there. Ask your students about their post-high school plans; you'll be surprised how many of your most talented students aren't even thinking about college! Encourage your students, even high school freshman, to attend college fairs, go on campus tours, and to seek out more information online. If you want to take it a step further, create a college profile bulletin board in your classroom, arrange field trips, or invite college students and professors to speak to your classes (and to be tutors).
  4. Keep a little perspective on how much school has changed since you were there. This is more true of middle and high school than younger grades, but the issues students are dealing with become more abundant and more complicated very rapidly. I would say that as quickly as computers become obsolete (every 2-4 years or so) middle and high school cultures experience another shift. This is true even for young, newly graduated teachers-to-be. For example, when I was in high school, there were no openly gay students that I knew of. Of course there were rumors, but I don't think my classmates were ready to tackle that sort of issue yet. The year I graduated high school was the year my sister started, and she later told me that openly gay students and couples were commonplace throughout her high school years. This was unheard of when I was there, just a few years earlier, but it proved to me how quickly things had changed. The lesson here is to understand and empathize with what your students are going through, and that no matter how long ago you were in your their position, things have changed.
  5. Don't get bogged down or depressed by negative portrayals of teachers in the media. Yes, I know that it seems like not a day goes by without another embarrassing story about a sex scandal or something just as bad. You must remember that negative stories draw more eyeballs to news and tabloids than positive ones, which in turn sells advertising (or more papers). It's all about money. The inspirational stories are out there, you just have to look harder (#18). In the end though, you have to know in your heart that you are in the noblest profession, working to make a positive impact on hundreds if not thousands of lives (see #50 below).
  6. Become a student of everything "local" to your students. This is similar to some of the advice I've already given (#7, #8, and #12) because it's another way to overcome the constant challenge of "relevance". It requires some reconnaissance work, traveling around, studying, listening and learning everything about the location, culture, language and history behind that community. Doing so serves two purposes: it gives you another way to make connections to real life and build them into your lessons, and it helps you understand your students better so that you can know how to invest them fully in what you're doing in class. For example, in all of the communities I taught in throughout south Texas, bingo was a huge part of the culture (it grew out of the traditional Mexican game of loterĂ­a). Everybody played it. So develop a math bingo game for class was a no-brainer, and not coincidentally a huge success.
  7. Pick your battles. Believe me, I know what it's like to be frustrated by everything your district and administration does. I wanted to fix everything, to fight for what I believed in, to save the world. I still have trouble accepting it myself, but you can't fix everything. You risk alienating people you need on your side for the really important issues if you focus on too many of the smaller ones. More importantly, you'll burn yourself out. I'm by no means telling you not to take a stand, especially when you're fighting for the benefit of your students, but do it for the things that matter most. Also, do it in a way that you won't burn any bridges before the inevitable battles to come.
  8. Learn the power of one-on-one student conferences. I've seen too many young teachers almost eager to rush into confrontations in the classroom because they feel the need to project some sort of dominating presences over their students. They'll take even the smallest, most innocuous student behavior and let it destroy the entire class. Even mild-mannered students tend to get offended and insulted when they are called out in front of the entire class, because they see it as a lack of respect. Talking to students on a one-to-one basis, either whispering to them at their desk, asking them to step outside, having them stay before or after class, or even pulling them out of another class for a few minutes are all better options for dealing with most situations. It helps avoid power struggles and minimize distractions for everybody. It also gives you a chance to really talk with those students, to build a better rapport and hopefully a constructive relationship with them. For more specific guidance on how to conduct these conversations, read the book I recommended in mini-lesson #38!
  9. Find a mentor or model teacher. I don't care if you've been at this teaching game for 50 years, as I said earlier this week: if you're not always striving to get better, you'll quickly become irrelevant to your students and your profession. Everyone needs a mentor or model, someone to look up to, to draw inspiration from, to bounce ideas off of. This doesn't need to be someone with more experience, either, just someone who helps make you a better teacher. New teachers, listen carefully: you need to find your own mentor. 99% of the people who are assigned to you are just looking for an extra paycheck or otherwise don't really have your best interests at heart. If you can't find anyone at your campus, find a good blog by a teacher you can model yourself after.
  10. Don't give up! No matter how much success I have, positive feedback I've received, or how many "I want to teach forever" moments I've experienced, I still have doubts. Even today, even while I'm writing this right now, I wonder if I can do this job for another year, let alone a career. Our profession is one of the most frustrating, stressful, and unhealthy imaginable. It's also one of the most rewarding, inspiring and life-affirming imaginable. It's easy to beat yourself up when things aren't going well, or to doubt your abilities, or to stop trying to get through to a student. My last and most important lesson is to never give up, not on your kids, and not on yourself. We have the most important job in the world--don't let anybody tell you different. The kids need you. The world needs you. To hammer this point home, I'm enlisting the help of two brave men who never gave up: Jim Valvano, college basketball coaching legend, gave his "Don't Give Up, Don't Ever Give Up" speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards while he was dying of cancer. The second is Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, whose speech known as The Last Lecture has inspired so many. Pausch died just a few days ago after battling pancreatic cancer, but his inspiration lives on. Good luck this coming school year.
You can read the other 40 lessons here: 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, and 31-40.

If you've gotten something out of this list, you should check out my book, Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom, available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and other fine online retailers.