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?

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?

I WANT to teach vectors!

I haven’t looked at enough math teacher blogs or talked to enough math teacher friends to know for sure, but I am assuming I’m weird for this one. I was doing some long term planning for my first go at Precalculus, and realizing that I get to teach about vectors was really REALLY exciting. I’m not particularly sure why. I do have some ideas that I think are pretty fun on how to hook students into the math, but I also know that they can be super practical when applied in physics or maybe other subjects.

I want to start off by revealing a slide that looks something like this.VectorIntro

And have them marinate in the craziness for a minute. Then explain that this can be true if we are talking about vectors, which have a magnitude and a direction, so on and so forth.


Also, I’m kind of hoping for a windy day, so that I can take my students outside and have a student throw a beach ball one direction, and have the wind act as another vector adding to the vector representing the velocity and direction of the throw. I guess if necessary it can be in the hallway with a big box fan providing the wind. Any thoughts on how to raise the rigor on these ideas so I don’t just jump into boring practice after that?