Forty Years Minus Seven Weeks

I am seven weeks short of 40 years of teaching and I have seen a lot of things. Over the years my classroom changed, my students changed, I’ve changed and now the world has changed. I just finished my third week working with my students remotely because of the COVID-19 virus and I am not optimistic this “new normal” is going to end before the school year is over.

For those that don’t personally know me, I am very much an introvert that loves teaching. I get very anxious in new situations with new people. However, once I get to know someone I find great comfort knowing them. It takes me longer than most to get comfortable with my classes when we are in the classroom. I love working with students. I love being in my classroom and watching my students learn and grow. I am comfortable with technology and have the tools, I just don’t like the lack of human contact with the current situation. This is my last year of teaching and this is not how I wanted my last year to end. I really hope I can finish my last year actually in my classroom with my students. 

I have always thought that our schools are full of heros, but now those heros are trying to do their job remotely. This is new to all of us and there are teachers out there doing amazing things, but students and teachers still need relationships. Even if they are introverts like me.

In my classroom I focus on building relationships and we experiment and discover math through interactions. I focus on orchestrating class discussions instead of direct instruction. This past three weeks has really been challenging, as I try to guide my students down a correct path remotely. My students are comfortable with the technology and almost all of them have the necessary technology. My current problem; I do not have students that are trained to just sit and watch someone explain things, because that is not how we do things in our classroom. Now I need to resort to more direct instruction and it has been difficult for me and them.

Sometimes you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.

Teachers Need to Be Learning Facilitators

Stop Talking

I have never been a ‘lecture’ teacher, but I did too much taking. I heard from so many people, that we need to give less information and let questions develop instead of looking for one answer. I call it the ‘Dan Meyer effect’ @ddmeyer. He suggested we taking a problem out of a textbook and deleting all of the unnecessary information, and the question that we were guiding them to answer. Second, I was inspired by Peter Liljedahl @pgliljedahl and Alex Overwijk @AlexOverwijk ‏ to start with a rich task and let students work at vertical surfaces (search Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces). It is important that the task does not have information that results in a single answer.

Dan Meyer says you can always add (information), but you cannot subtract.

My best classroom magical moments were when I sent my students to vertical whiteboards and posed an introductory task with limited information. Once you add information to a task, you guide student down a road you have chosen for them. When I started being tight with the information, students (and I) learned way more about the task and the mathematics. I also learned more about how students learned. Not all students approach problems in the same way, and often there are better ways of approaching a task than the way I would have guided them.

This past year, I started many days by sending students to the whiteboards with partners and posed a task. The discussions about the task and where they went from the little information I gave them, amazed me on a daily basis. I learned more from them then they learned from me. We need to set up scenarios for our students that give them the autonomy to be successful without us guiding them down OUR path.

We need to be able to stand back, make observations and facilitate the learning, so that our students can solve problems on their own.

Teachers need to be facilitators of learning, not lecturers.


What are your grades reporting?

I have been teaching long enough to have made every mistake possible, so I am not judging anyone in this blog. It is not too late to change.

It is this time of the year, when I get frustrated with meaningless grading. After two weeks completed, my students are setting the tone for their level of academic acceptance. For those students that are not off to a good start, I want to fix the problem before it becomes a norm.

My first step is to visit with the students I am concerned about. Since I do not have a strong rapport with them yet, this is just a casual visit. My next step is to check on their historical grades. Unless a previous teacher used Standards Based Grading (or something similar), often all I get from a previous report is what a student (or parent) accepts as their minimum grade.

My third step is to check on their current progress in their other courses. This is where it truly shakes me. I hope my students know what 100% means. Unfortunately, most of my students have more than 100% in at least one course. Again, don’t get me wrong. I have offered extra credit in the past to get “parent notification” returned or something similar. I often see 200% or higher on my student grades at this point. Whoa, I got off topic.

Since I was converted to Objective Based Grading, I see the ridiculousness of extra credit, based on bringing supplies or behavioral practices. I had to see and hear about Standards Based Grading for about three years before I implemented what I call Objective Based Grading. Since being converted, I am flabbergasted at what little my past grading practices reported.

Chapter 2 –  83%

What does that even mean?????? Even if you put the title of the chapter on that grade (Chapter 2 Polynomials), it still has very little meaning. How much of that grade is based on assignments, which could be anyone’s work (or with huge amount of outside help). And don’t get me started on extra credit again… OK, confession: I sometimes give extra points on an in-class project when a student demonstrated mathematical understanding beyond what was expected. You can even put a standard in your grading, that is based on something other than mathematical understanding, and I believe that is acceptable, if it is not a huge part of a final grade. The problem occurs when a mathematical standard has a grade influenced by behavior or unrelated extra credit.

If a student’s grade were based on assessments (with integrity), and broke down into standards or objectives, they may have meaning.

  • Add and Subtract Polynomials
  • Multiplying a monomial by a polynomial
  • Multiplying a binomial by a binomial

If grade report had metrics assigned to topics such as these, an observer would know how a student performed at that point in time, on those objectives. Now that I have colleagues that are reporting grades with meaning, I can look back at a student’s previous course and see what math topics they excelled in and with what topics they struggled.

Now grade reporting has meaning. My apologies to all my previous students and parents that just “received” a standard letter grade, claiming that it was that simple.

It seems that over time, it always took me three or four times of hearing a great idea before I implemented it. If you do not already have grades with meaning, please speed the process up and make the change. Do some research, find something you can justify within your school system and jump in. At the very minimum, please break your individual assessment grade (Chapter 2 Test) into multiple grades with meaningful titles.

I use a grading rubric on each objective on an assessment and put multiple grades in the grade program each time my students take an assessment. For the skeptics and the teachers that worry that this is time-consuming, using this rubric to grade assessments is much faster for me than traditional grading. I need to plug my reporting into a traditional system and my parents and students want a nice neat percent (because that has meaning for them), so I like the 10 point rubric.

Here are links to my grading rubric (it may not be perfect but improves every year) and several examples of objectives used by @jwbrackney and myself.

At this point in my career I know these things (and my #1TMCThing).

Two years ago I came back from TMC15 and had a clear vision on what I needed to do in my classroom. Here is my blog from then: At this point in my life I know these things.

After teaching 35 years, I really evaluated what I was doing and how it worked with the current students. I had updated many of my class activities but was far from where I needed to be. Here I am two years later and here is the report on how I did on my beliefs.

VRG – Most days last year I greeted each student with a random card that assigned them a seat in a group of three. The greeting was valuable and the students familiarity with each other paid huge dividends. The collaboration as they were learning was also valuable. I will continue to do this.

VNPS – Immediately after I returned from TMC15 I started planning whiteboards on every available wall in my classroom. I also pushed my math colleagues to do the same. Most of the math classrooms in my high school now have whiteboards everywhere. I used VNPS on a regular basis the past two years. Students work together at the VNPS and the conversations are amazing. VNPS ARE A MUST IN EVERY MATH CLASSROOM!

Last year I implemented Standards Based Grading (SBG) in my Algebra 1 and Honors Algebra 2 classes. My grade reports went from meaningless to reporting strengths and weaknesses of my students. I also opened my assessments to retakes and the true purpose of what we are doing in our schools. If learning is our goal, we must give multiple opportunities to learn. SBG might seem like a big change, so you can call it Objective Based Grading and just change the names of your assessment to the objectives they are assessing. Instead of one grade, each of my assessments have 4-5 grades with objective names. Here is how each objective is scored on my assessments. SBG IS AN ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED CHANGE, IF YOU ARE NOT ALREADY DOING IT.

Desmos and Desmos Activities have changed how my students and I look at learning mathematics. The process of learning is so much more efficient when you use the right tools. As a Desmos Fellow, I learned how to build Desmos Activities that are purposeful and reach all levels of students. DESMOS HAS AND WILL CONTINUE TO CHANGE HOW MATHEMATICS IS STUDIED BY TEACHERS AND STUDENTS.

I would like to apologize to the over 3500 students that had to sit through their first day of the year listening to me read rules and procedures. I know by the end of the first day they couldn’t remember which rules went with which class and wanted to poke their eyes out. The past two years I made sure that I was doing activities the first week that helped students understand what learning looked and felt like. I made sure it was an activity that was math related and students were learning about each other and I was learning about them. My favorites are Noah’s Arc, The Taxman and Sum 31 Card Challenge. And, Name Tents from @saravdwerf  are a must for the first week. These are ideas I got from various people at TMC and the Twitter community.

I also attended TMC16 and TMC17, which generated all kinds of other things I need to think about and implement when they are needed. All the ideas expressed here have kept me young and my classroom fresh. Thank you all that have contributed to these changes.

I am still working on journaling in my classroom. I am going to make this my #1TMCThing. I know it is a great thing, I just need to work out the details. My plan is to do this electronically with either Google Classroom or some other electronic form.

Distractions that Interrupt Learning

I learned early on with cell phones, that when you ask a student to hand you their phone, it very often becomes confrontational. A cell phone is a very personal item for some people.

distractionsTo avoid the confrontation I created a “distraction box” and lumped cell phones in with the many other distraction that students bring to class. These items have changed over time, but include “fast food” toys, bouncy balls, Rubics cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot item now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.

A distraction could be a distraction to the individual student, the other students or even a distraction to me. On the first day of the year I explain to my students that if I make eye contact with them and point to the distraction box, they have a choice to make. If they smile and put the item in the box, they can take the item out of the box on the way out of the room. If they throw a fit and put the distraction in the box, they can have it back at the end of the day. If they refuse to put the distraction in the box, they go to the office with the distraction.

On the first day of the year we even practice smiling while we put an item in the box. The interaction is always kept very light and the students really are cooperative. It has been a few years since an interaction actually became confrontational, because I am not asking them to put the item in my hand. I even have students sometimes put their cell phone in the box on the way in the door because they know they are going to have trouble staying focused.

This distraction box concept really has changed the atmosphere of my room. Students understand what a distraction is and why we need to limit distractions. We even joke sometimes because the box isn’t big enough to put “Billie” in the box.

Backwards Brain Bike Progress Report

IMG_1789I have not published a video of me riding my bike since week 10. This is now week 20, still practicing about 10 minutes each day. I have not made noticeable progress in the last 10 weeks. I can concentrate and ride it confidently, but when I lose concentration I have to put my foot down. I will continue to practice each day, and am hoping that my brain takes over the balancing soon.

I have several students practicing now. I have one student (Caleb) that first tried on Monday and spent about 20 minutes each day this past week. His progress is about the same as mine at 10 weeks. It must be the “young” mind and his determination. Here is a link to the video of him on Friday after 5 days of riding.

Student after 5 days.

Some students still think it is going to be easy and they would just need to ride it for a while. After a few tries, they appreciated the difficulty. After the second day, Caleb told me that he had way more respect for me now. Up to that point I think many students just thing I am crazy with a backwards bike.

Unexpected Results

On Friday I was riding my Backwards Brain Bicycle in the hall during lunch. As I passed a group of special needs students one of the young men said to his group (not exact quotes but best I can remember), “HEY, there is that guy that rides that bike.” Then he said to me, “A few weeks ago I was in a really bad mood and was really angry at a lot of things. Then I saw you riding that bike and it made me really happy.”

I was very much at a loss of words. I said that I was glad that it made him happy and continued to ride down the hall. That conversation keeps rolling around in my brain. I woke up this morning and thought about all the unexpected results of the many things we do as a person and especially as a teacher. We sometimes never know who we have contact with and influence in a positive or negative way.

When I was younger my Dad always told me that we should greet everyone with a smile, and wave at them when we pass them as we drive. He said that we might be the reason that person has a very good day or a bad day, just based on that single interaction.

I have heard from many of my former students and it is always interesting what they remember or say about our personal interaction (besides the mathematics). Most things they tell me are things that I thought very little about at the time.

Greet the people you see today with a smile and a compliment. You may never know how it changed their day.

A Year in the Past

One more year is almost in the past and I want to reflect on what I have done differently and what/who changed my teaching profession for the better.

This was the third year for me using Twitter, the second year of TMC and the first year of being a Desmos Fellow. I bring that up because there were many things that shaped me as a math teacher over the years, but these are three things that are currently guiding me in my profession.

Twitter: I started teaching 36+ years ago in a small high school as the only math teacher and struggled to find mentors. The state of Montana has been constantly struggling to get enough teachers in the rural areas, and then supporting them with mentor programs because of the distance to other schools. Now I teach in a larger school with 12 great math teachers in the same hall. We still rely on innovative ideas from the Internet. My single biggest source of new ideas is my Twitter community. That community started with #mtbos and @tmathc. The amazing part of my teaching career, started trying to find someone locally to collaborate with and I have recently collaborated with people literally around the world via Twitter on math techniques and lessons.

Twitter Math Camp: Early in my Twitter life I discovered a group that was meeting during the summer to make connections with each other via Twitter and an annual meeting. I followed their tweets that first year and became determined that I would be at the next summer meeting, no matter what it took. I attended TMC15 with a colleague and brought home more ideas than I could carry. Besides attending morning sessions on Desmos, I brought home ideas about VNPS (vertical non-permanent surfaces)  and VRG (visual random grouping) from the amazing Alex Overwijk @alexoverwijk. These two ideas changed the way that I taught. I implemented VNPS as soon as my classes started in the fall. Not only did it change how I taught, but the majority of my math colleagues in my building now also use VNPS on a regular basis. If you are not familiar with VNPS, research now and put it into practice ASAP. The amount of formative assessing I can do, and the student collaboration that takes place during VNPS is clearly superior to anything that I have ever done in my classroom. I now greet my students at the door and give them a random card to assign seats in groups of three. This is called VRG because students know two things, they are assigned randomly rather than some form of teacher manipulation and their partners are just for that day. I tried this mid-year last year and was not as successful. Starting at the beginning of the year, students haven’t already formed many opinions about their classmates and get to know a lot of student early in the year. I attended TMC16 and will be at TMC17!

Desmos: If you teach anything that involves graphing, you MUST use Desmos. Between the graphing tool for graphing and discovery, to the classroom activities that you can use, it will change the way you look at math and working in your classroom. If you haven’t seen Desmos or didn’t get the Desmos bug, go there NOW! and/or I also have had the great fortune to be invited to be a part of an amazing group called the Desmos Fellowship. The great ideas just keep flowing from the creative Desmos Team and the fellowship group. Desmos gave me the opportunity to personally meet all these amazing people in November at the Desmos headquarters. These two groups are changing the way math is taught and how we look at math education.

Sub categories (but also important): 

  • Backwards Brain Bicycle: Thanks to @saravdwerf and @msfierst for the inspiration to build a Backwards Brain Bicycle and use it in my school to demonstrate perseverance with numerous side lessons. Here is my story: Backwards Brain Bicycle
  • Name Tents: These are not your usual name tent and you MUST do this to start your next year. Once again with great influence from TMC and @saravdwerd my colleagues and I used Name tents during the first week, with amazing results. Click on the link above for more information.
  • M Cubed: This is a local beginning to create a community like TMC. Thanks to@HilaryRisser we had the first annual event in Montana and I hope many to follow. Here is this past year’s link.
  • Standards Based Grading: I actually use Objective Based Grading, but with the same philosophy. I used it in my Algebra 1 classes this past Fall and will incorporate it in my Honors Algebra 2 classes this Spring.

It has been a really great year and next year will surely be better because of the wonderful math communities that allow me to live in their world! Thank you!

Week 10 of the BWBB

bike-logoI am getting better, but I keep stressing to my students and others, that this is 10 weeks of practice. I am still getting about 5-10 minutes of practice twice
a day. I did take it to our state teachers’ conference and it was interesting in who took interest. It was generally the younger teachers (and student helpers) and the very experienced teachers. It seemed like the younger teachers were convinced they could ride it and very experienced teachers were interested in the mental part of it.

Week 10 VideoMuch smoother and can go around corners. Still requires a lot of concentration.

Week 8 of the BWBB

I do not have a video for the 8th week.  It would pretty bike-logomuch look like week 6, except I can now go a bit farther. On Thursday I was able to make one and a half laps around the math wing without putting my feet down. That would be about 500 feet with 6 corners. After one and a half laps I noticed a centipede on the floor and completely lost my concentration. It is the little things that distract me and then my mind reverts back to what it has done for the last 50 years (turn into the fall). Many people still don’t realize that it is not learning to turn correctly that is the challenge, but unlearning what my mind has been doing for a long time. To actually turn a corner was not a big challenge for me, as much as the panic and losing concentration as it was happening.

I am still riding it 2-3 times per day and try to go two laps around the math wing. After two laps my mind seems really taxed and it is hard to concentrate any longer. When I have tried a third lap, it was a disaster. Later in the day I can try again with some success.

How does that relate to students that really have to struggle with math? With 60 minute periods a struggling student must really need stamina to make it to the end of class. This has reminded me to change up activities more often during the class period. I have always noticed that when we do an activity too long, students get off task. I assumed that it was because they were bored, but maybe the struggling students can no longer concentrate on that concept.

Learning is hard!