Guerrilla Students

My coach (the person who observes me frequently and gives me feedback) has complimented my students’ “scrappiness.” I love this categorization of them as it reveals their persistence in the midst of a system that I often think has not served them well. The other thing that I appreciate about the honesty of this categorization though is my students’ guerrilla attitude toward schooling. I think of street fighters who are ill-equipped, and so adapt various strategies to survive. I think many of my students have evolved this approach to their schooling.

Unfortunately, I believe many of their survival strategies limit their growth potential to “just surviving” rather than thriving. A colleague and I want to come up with a way to give our students the necessary tools to continue growing, not just get by.

So here’s what I want to know: What do you consider the most critical skills for students to have to succeed well in a challenging problem solving environment?

I think I want to emphasize as my big three

  1. Collaborating
  2. Valuing the process over the product
  3. Communicating clearly and concisely

Anyone have any experience teaching students these things? Do you have ways you build practice in to your classroom?

Differentiation pt. 1

Pardon me while I continue to idolize Sam Shah. He’s inspired me quite a few times recently.

A couple days back, Mr. Shah posted a project he was planning to use for his students to foster extracurricular exploration of math. Quick summary: There are TONS of cool math sites and blogs and newsletters on the internet which highlight progressive, artistic, fun, puzzling math, and he put together a project for students to choose several things to investigate.

As I read it, I LOVED it. I replied to him on Twitter and soon realized that another favorite math teacher blogger had been his inspiration. SO MUCH COLLABORATION!

As it is my first year teaching all the classes I am teaching, I am trying to hold off on making a huge investment in forming projects at least until I have a chance to get through a first year and make it to the summer to have a chance to reflect. I began to think of ways I could still use these ideas in my class.

Enter tension 1: In a recent observation, my observer challenged me to go all in with differentiation. Its always something I struggle with, as it tends to make me think I have to plan separate lessons for each level student in my class. I have no more time for that. However she introduced the idea of just offering choices in how students show mastery. No doubt its a lot easier to give a problem set and get all students to work through it, but she suggested a choice board. This one is from an art class, but the point is to create options that engage students from the different learning styles and preferences.

Enter tension 2: I usually teach to the majority of low level learners I have. I have not been happy with how I am (not) challenging my high level learners. I feel like the common advice was to turn them into peer tutors when they finished their work. I know they can benefit from that. I am learning a ton about statistics by teaching it for the first time this year. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about that idea. I want them to be excited to finish other work early so they can continue to challenge themselves with a new and exciting topic.

Tension 1 + Tension 2 = My Current Idea

I am trying on using most of Mr. Shah’s mini-exploration activities as an opportunity for choice and for my students to continue to push themselves. So far, I’ve had a only few students I’ve asked to participate. I ask them to go to our class website and read the directions and pick an activity to complete. See the work in progress. I’m still working to break it down into clearer chunks. Vi Hart’s doodling has been pretty popular so far, as well as a couple of the games on Math Munch. Still looking forward to see how it works out as time goes on and as the routine continues to settle in.

Failing Forward

A colleague of mine (@JoshShelleyUNC) shared this NPR story with me a while back on how students see struggle differently in Eastern and Western cultures, and I have tried to use it before in my classroom to send a message to my students: struggling is not an indicator that you are dumb. I loved the story, and I think it made a brief impact on the students’ thinking, but it wasn’t very sticky. I couldn’t refer back to it easily, and it just wasn’t captivating to them. I listen to NPR a lot, but it didn’t really move the needle with students who think life should be about their entertainment.

I just finished reading an essay by Keith Robinson, a teacher from Newark, NJ who was recently awarded a Fishman Prize from the New Teacher Project, which rewards “superlative classroom practice.” He wrote an essay titled “Gettin’ Messi: How Mistakes Make Mathematicians.” (find it here, starting on page 21).

He discusses how he introduces students to Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest soccer player, and after wowing them with his skills, he breaks down their fixed intelligence mindset by showing them video of how hard he practices. He shows the breathtakingly skilled player taking free kick after free kick and missing many of them. The essay goes on to discuss how from that day forward, Messi is the class icon for persistence and a growth mindset. He discusses how he creates a place where mistakes are valued at a higher level than correct answers because of the potential growth involved. For the full perspective, read it yourself. I love his idea for a couple reasons: 1) I’m a Messi fan (have a jersey and all), 2) its STICKY!

Then I reflect on my classroom. What have I done to engage my students in their mistakes in a positive way? Well, I have a sign on my wall that says Fail Forward. I have said a few times this year that students’ mistakes are more important to me than the right answers. I had a couple assignments earlier in the year where I had them look at intentionally incorrect work in order to find the mistake and make recommendations on how to improve.

I have done a little bit, but I know I’m still a long way away when I do a TI Nspire quick poll with my class and have some students asking “Who put _____?!” They’re interested, but it’s clear they have no interest in helping that person out. In a culture where students bond by making fun of each other, I see an uphill battle.

This element of class culture is especially critical in my classroom. I teach mostly junior and senior math classes where I have a HUGE range of ability levels. My pre-calculus classes are all labeled honors, but since there are no “regular” sections, I have students who have been passed through the algebras and geometry without much comprehension and I have other students who are legitimately deserving of the honors title. In that classroom, the practice of students comparing themselves to one another can be devastating if students see their ability something they have no control over. Students giving up becomes much more common, and there is no reason to push themselves.

Since I believe the goal of the education is creating thinkers, it is critical to have these students be self-motivated. It is impossible if they see their mistakes as defining their ability. If they truly believe that their efforts can make them better, they are empowered to face head on the many obstacles they face daily. The challenge now is to show them a model of humility and working to improve on mistakes by addressing this ASAP once we get back from fall break.

The Only Spring of Knowledge

I teach in an urban district, in a poor neighborhood where >90% of our students are on free or reduced lunch. The schools in our neighborhood have been making strides, but have regularly been on the state’s naughty list with regards to success. There are already enough discussions of why it got this way and how to fix it and who to blame on the internet, and I don’t have the time to waste on that anyway. I choose to focus on my classroom, and what I can do (or can’t do).

I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last couple months reading and taking ideas from some prominent math teacher bloggers from around the country who are true innovators in terms of content and rigor of their courses. One of the biggest revelations of getting caught up in math teacher blogging world is realizing how limited most of my students truly are. I know its oversimplifying it to say it this way, but most of my students are functionally illiterate! They could read through a passage and say most of the words correctly, but if there is a new word (particularly a math term) they struggle to sound it out. Then if I ask another student to rephrase or summarize, I first get word for word quotes. If I keep pushing, maybe that one particular kid can save everyone else from their dumbfounded silence.

They didn’t teach me this in my undergrad, but illiteracy is equally as disabling in math as it is in English, history, or any other course that typically carry the torch for reading and discussion.

When students choose not to read because they don’t understand it anyway, they become primarily auditory and visual learners. They want to hear everything or see pictures. I don’t mind catering to those needs and am doing my best. However, it leaves me as the only spring of knowledge in the room.

I have tried to adapt group work packets from some of my favorite math bloggers like this one (which I stole almost completely from Kate Nowak), only to have my classroom devolve into social hour because the students are busy waiting for me to come around and explain the questions to them and walk them through step by step, even when I have written out hints beside the questions. Many never learned to struggle through a problem and evaluate their answers based on other resources.I think this is one of the things that makes teaching so exhausting for me. I have to do everything for many of the students.

Part of this is venting, but also a call for ideas. How would you react in this situation? I know there is no magic bullet, but I want my students to realize the value of becoming more self-directed and responsible learners. How would you communicate that?

Realizing I had not thought that one through…

Last year, my school purchased class sets of TI Nspire CX calculators with wireless Navigator systems. Be still my nerdy heart! These things are awesome. I can use the wireless capabilities to conduct polls during class, obtaining immediate assessment data. Then I can reveal a bar chart of all inputted answers, and we can discuss the positive merits of wrong answers along with where they went wrong. Game changer!

Navigator Poll Screenshot


The difficult thing about this transition is the massive leap students have to make to learn the whole new paradigm behind these calculators, when they were used to the TI 84 model. The Nspires function much more like a computer, where you create documents, and each document has pages which can contain either a calculator, graph, spreadsheet, statistical graph, text editor, or a data collection app (if you have the attachments). The keypad is incredibly different than the 84’s and they are just miles apart.

Anticipating the difficulty of this gap, I wanted to find something to help them feel more familiar and less overwhelmed with the new calculator. A quick search of the TI Education website revealed this scavenger hunt by Lois Coles for an earlier version of the Nspire. I adapted it, changing the buttons, and maybe adding a few things. I was in first year teacher mode, and didn’t think much more of it.

This year, I made a few quick edits and came up with this:

I used this as an in class activity, giving students plenty of time and the chance to work together. I tried to take all the pressure of “getting the right answer” off and explained the goal was really just to familiarize themselves with the calculator.

Within the first 20-30 minutes of using the activity this year, I realized it just didn’t fit.

  1. Now that I teach AP Stat, Precal, and Geometry, I realized the way my students will regularly be using the calculators in each class looks very different.
  2. The activity itself just doesn’t cover things that are really that important. Why in the world do my students need to know what color the numbers are?

I started an evernote list during class with a few key questions/notes, such as: “should target more practical skills,” and “why show them how to plot points on the calculator? we don’t do that in class.”

I am also being inspired by Amber Caldwell’s post on Calculator Boot Camp. She mentions a focus on practicing key calculator skills at the beginning of the year. They get the experience, but are still doing appropriately challenging math.

I think next year’s iteration will be different and more targeted for every class, so they can get specific skills relevant to their individual course.

Getting ready for School

I’ve been running around like a crazy person this week. We started in-service, with students to come starting Monday. One thing I have been doing is designing a few more posters for my room. A phrase I want to use a lot this year as a motivator is “Refuse to be average.” In the design process (nothing too complicated, just using Microsoft Word to knock it out quick) I had a really nerdy moment, but in the way that makes me really happy.