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! desmos.com and/or teacher.desmos.com. 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!

BWBB Week 6

bike-logoAfter six weeks of learning how to ride a Backwards Brain Bicycle, I am able to go about 100 feet without putting my feet down to catch myself. It is not pretty and definitely not smooth. I have decided my definition of being successful riding the bike, would be to ride it without “thinking” about steering for balance. At this point I am definitely having to think hard about turning into the fall, “in the opposite direction”. I want my brain to take over the balancing. I am having to really concentrate to steer to balance. If I get distracted, I revert back to what I have done on a bike for the past 50 years, and need to catch myself with my feet.

I am going a bit faster, which helps with the balance. As I go faster I feel strange not wearing a helmet, so I am going to start wearing a helmet. I don’t want to send the wrong message about safety.

One of my goals of this project is to actively study the learning process. I don’t know if this is the same thing, but my observation of other people is much more intriguing. Many students are convinced that it is going to be easy to ride the bike before they try. Some try a very short amount of time and want to walk way. Some try for a longer time and before they leave they promise to come back. I teach Algebra 1 to 9th grade students and Honors Algebra 2 to 9th-11th grade students. Interestly, lots of Algebra 1 students have tried and continue to try to ride the bike. Very few Honors Algebra 2 have tried to ride the bike. At this point, I am of the belief that people that are not used to failing don’t want to try things that their chance of success is low. Most of the Honors Algebra 2 students are also much more reserved and don’t want to “look bad” in front of their peers. I do not want to generalize this situation too much, but I do see huge differences in how the high academic achievers react differently than other students. Along the same lines, the Algebra 1 students that don’t give up in class, are more likely to try riding the bike (and try other things).

I would like more teachers to ride the bike and will make that one of my goals. I am taking my bike to our state teacher conference in three weeks and will courage people to try it. It is not on the agenda anywhere, but we have a great group of math teachers in Montana and I am sure it will get lots of interest.

 

Week 6 Video – I am getting better, but it really takes concentration and it doesn’t look smooth, yet.