Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ninjas: Undeniably Awesome. But Student Motivational Tool?

Tomorrow morning will be my first day with my students. When they walk into the room, this is one of the things they'll see:


Yep. A section of blank wall that I have dubbed "The Ninja Board."

What is it?

That's what my students are inevitably going to ask me. And I'm not going to tell them.

But I'll tell you: It's a type of "achievement" system, similar to what one might find in video games. In fact, I'm pretty much ripping this off of the clan rank system from Final Fantasy XII, which I played in my spare time this summer.

The idea is simple: Students do things in class that earn them "ninja points." This can be anything: Completing assignments, demonstrating knowledge at a certain threshold of rigor, developing an interesting project, etc. Lots of things can earn "ninja points." Enough ninja points, along with completing other certain tasks, will allow students to gain a ninja rank ("Level 1 Ninja," "Apprentice Ninja," "Super-Awesome Math Ninja," etc.). Their ranks, in turn, will be displayed alongside their names on the ninja board.

I'm purposely not going to tell my students what they can do to earn ninja points or ranks. I want them to discover that on their own. They'll have no idea what's up until the first student earns ninja points and gets their name put on the board, with a point tally and a rank.

Then everyone will start to get it. And chances are they'll want a piece of the glory, too.

I want them to be curious about what they can do in class to earn ninja points, and then try to figure out on their own what those things are. When a student does do something that earns ninja points, or when a student does gain a rank, the knowledge of how they did so will be published to the ninja board. So they'll slowly learn how to get ninja points and ninja ranks as they go along.

Is it cheesy? Yes.

Is it completely silly? Of course.

But what if my students buy into it?

It's possible some really cool stuff could happen as a result.

I'm hoping to see increased student motivation in different areas of our class. I'm trying many new things this year -- discussion board posts, journal prompts, student blogging, and so forth -- and I would love to see my students get really creative and really deep with these things. The Ninja Board might help facilitate this. Like I said, there are many things that could earn ninja points. Perhaps a particularly thoughtful discussion post; a journal entry where the student talks about a real learning breakthrough they had; or a voluntarily-written blog post on a really cool topic.

Here's what I think might be the real beauty of it: I honestly haven't given much thought to what specifically can earn ninja points. But I'm willing to bet that my students will try out a bunch of different things, or ask me about different ways to earn ninja points. And some of what they try might actually be pretty cool, thus legitimately worthy of ninja points.

In other words, the students themselves will determine what earns ninja points, not me.

So it starts tomorrow, and we're going to see how it goes. It could fall flat on its face. It could be fun for a while and then get old. Or, it could be really super-cool and lead to some unexpected (and pleasant) results.

"Why ninjas?" you might ask.

I'll tell you why: because they're totally sweet.

Related: Ninja Board Update: Week 1

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Keepin' It Real

I'm going into my fourth year of teaching math at New Tech High @ Zion-Benton East. I love my job. I've discovered that I'm actually, perhaps, maybe, starting to get halfway decent at it. At least there's a chance that I am. There's perpetual room for improvement, and today I wanted to talk briefly about one area I hope to improve this year.

In my first few years of attempting to teach a PBL/PrBL math class, I've come up with some projects that are pretty good at simulating authentic real-world tasks: Creating a different type of Oreo cookie package for Nabisco; creating a scale drawing depicting how furniture should be laid out in a dorm room; and designing a hole for a miniature golf course.

These projects are certainly useful ways to help students see how math can be used for creating and improving products in a real-world context. On the other side of the coin, they fall short when it comes to real-world results. We didn't actually create a real Oreo package for Nabisco; we didn't actually have a real room with real furniture for our scale drawings; we didn't actually build a real mini-golf course.

They were real-world projects without real-world results.

As Dennis Littky probably would put it, I had the students doing "fake real work" instead of "real real work." Something like that.

I want to change that this year. As I continue on my journey of teaching PBL/PrBL math, I believe one of my next steps is to move my students away from the "fake real work" and into the "real real work." I want students to use math to actually create things; to innovate; to predict; to think critically; to affect their community in a positive way.

How do I do this? I haven't completely figured that out. I think I have a good start with the election-themed project idea I blogged about last time. I'm hoping my students can use their experience with this project to learn more about important issues, about making informed decisions based on available data/information, and about making defensible predictions.

A few of my students will even be voting this year; this might really help them learn about being informed voters.

And, because I want my students to produce real-world results, I need them to have a real-world audience. That's why students will be publishing their findings on our class blog (link coming soon) for the community and the rest of the interwebs to see, as well as sharing them with the Obama and Romney campaigns (fingies crossed that they'll actually take a look).

I think that's a good start in my goal to move away from "fake real work" and giving my students the chance to do "real real work."

But I need more. It probably sounds overly ambitious to the point of absurdity, but I want my students to always be using math to become better citizens and to benefit their community. I think the key to this is "real real work." I would love to have 100% of the school year consist of "real real work." (At this point, I'd be thrilled to even get 25% of the school year that way.)

So that's one of my goals this year. I want my students doing "real real work" that has a positive impact beyond the classroom. I'll certainly be scouring and engaging the blogosphere, Twittersphere, and meatspace for ways to accomplish this.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Project Idea: Math, Social Studies, and 'MURRICA!

I've had a half-baked idea for a project tossing around in my head for the past few weeks that I've been meaning to share. It's nowhere near perfect or ready to go, but I think it has some really cool potential. So, here we go:

It's an idea for a math and social studies project centered around the 2012 election.

(Math and social studies! I know, right?)

The idea is simple: Students work to answer the driving question, "What are the keys to winning the 2012 presidential election?"

Anyone who has been paying attention to the news (or who haven't been living under a rock at any point since 2008) probably have an idea of what the hot-button issues are, or which swing states will be most crucial to securing the presidency. For the math end of this project, however, numbers will tell the story.

As part of the process to answer the driving question, students will examine various sources of polling data. Gallup, for instance, has a daily tracking poll and plenty of polling data broken down by demographics. RealClearPolitics gathers and averages polling data from battleground states. Various electoral maps, such as this one on CNN's website, are available as well. Rasmussen Reports has polling data showing what issues are most important to Americans today. In short, lots of data to examine and interpret.

Students will gather and examine polling data to determine a few key points, including which states the candidates should focus most of their resources on and which issues the candidates should focus on. Their data analysis will be used to justify why they identified particular states and issues as being the most important to focus on.

For the final product in the math portion of this project, students will create a multimedia presentation to deliver their findings and make recommendations to both the campaigns of President Obama and Governor Romney as to how they should focus their campaigns in the final weeks leading up to the election. These presentations are to be posted to our class blog (which I have yet to set up -- I'd better get going on that) and will also be forwarded to both campaigns. (Hopefully, they'll even take time to look at them!)

I've been talking with the social studies teacher on my grade-level team about this project. It sounds like he and his English co-facilitator are planning to run a debate project at the start of the year that this could actually fit into. I think having the students use data to identify what issues are most important to Americans would then lead them to investigate why those issues are important, which would lend itself well to research for a debate. The math can inform their approach to debating various issues.

So that's my half-baked project idea to this point. There's certainly much more that needs to be thought about as I develop this into something workable.

For instance, I talked about students "using data analysis," but haven't gotten very far on how students will actually learn what it is and how to apply the skill. I think I could especially use some help there.

Also, I'm wondering if there's a place for linear modeling in here with the polling data (particularly since the first unit of the year is supposed to be linear equations/inequalities).

Other ideas I've had to far include: utilizing social media to talk directly to people in battleground states and survey them on what issues are important to them; convincing someone from Gallup or another polling agency to Skype with the class and talk about how they conduct their polls; convincing someone from either the Obama or Romney campaigns to Skype with the class about how they use polling data or other statistics to drive decisions about how they conduct their campaigns.

(Also, it would be really cool to come up with a way to make this work with #MYParty12.)

Anyway, that's it. As I said, I think there's lots of potential here, but I can definitely use as much help as I can get. If even one or two of you out there have thoughts or "I wonders" on this, please share! Otherwise, thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Algebra Isn't the Issue: A Response to "Is Algebra Necessary?"

I have a knack for being fashionably late with chiming in on controversial happenings. Responding to Dr. Andrew Hacker's op-ed piece, "Is Algebra Necessary?" is certainly no exception here.

There have been numerous responses around the blogosphere on this topic already from my fellow math teachers. Dan Willingham posted a particularly well-constructed rebuttal the day after the column was published. The uproar from the math education community comes as no surprise, nor does Dr. Hacker's cheeky response to the outpouring of criticism.

I could certainly dive into the fracas and expound upon the merits of teaching algebra while lamenting the current state of math education under the shadow of No Child Left Behind, but I think a more important issue may be getting lost in the conversation.

In this clip from Monday's episode of CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien, Dr. Steve Perry of Capital Preparatory Magnet School (Hartford, CT), in discussing Hacker's column, tells O'Brien that algebra "does present a real barrier" for students that come from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Perry goes on to refer to algebra as a "gatekeeper," citing a "one-size-fits-all" approach to the academic experience that is detrimental to cultivating success for all students. He asserts that children need experiences that they can be "more connected to" while emphasizing rigor, relationships, and relevance.

Judging by their reactions, O'Brien and co-panelist Margaret Hoover seemed to think Perry was taking Hacker's position that teaching algebra wasn't necessary. Indeed, when one watches this video for the first time, it certainly sounds like Perry agrees with Hacker in many respects.

Hoover seemed particularly incensed, jumping on Perry and pointing out that learning algebra has benefits for developing critical thinking skills that are vital to students later on in life.

That wasn't Perry's point, though. He notes that "it's 2012" and asks the question, "why are we teaching the same things the way we've always taught them?"

The point is this: The problem is not the fact that students are failing algebra. The problem is that we're not doing enough to address why they're failing algebra.

Perry touches on what I think the major underlying issue is with the growing number of students that are struggling with algebra: It's not that algebra is too hard or unnecessary. It's that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are not getting the support they need throughout their childhood to be equipped for academic success.

This excerpt from Hacker's editorial reveals a surprising lapse of understanding of the issue on his part:

Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee.

This is a rather odd thing to read, coming from the same man who wrote a New York Times #1 bestseller on racial inequality in America. For instance, he only mentions how white students performed on these state standardized tests; though he mentions black students in this passage, he doesn't even bother to mention how they performed, perpetuating an image that black students are incapable of performing as well as white students.  This is an egregious and irresponsible omission.

Equally troubling is the fact that Hacker seems to link being white with being affluent in the same fashion. He makes no distinction between how well low-income students performed on these tests compared to students who are not from low-income households. Yet this seems like an important distinction to make, particularly in the case of Tennessee which has a high population of economically disadvantaged students.

To be fair, comparison data between economic subgroups is not always readily available. The 2011 Tennessee Department of Education Report Card, for instance -- where Hacker got his "39 percent" figure -- provides a disaggregation of test performance data describing participation and results from various subgroups. However, this does not include students from non-low-income households.

That's not too much of a problem, though. We can determine how non-low-income students performed by utilizing basic set theory and a bit of -- gasp! -- algebra. We can then use this information to get a pretty good idea of how many of the "39 percent" of white students that scored below proficiency were also economically disadvantaged.

Taking the time to do some number-crunching, one can determine the following from the data provided by the Tennessee DOE (all figures are from 2011):

  • About 443,720 students in total scored below proficiency in math.
  • About 318,381 of these students were economically disadvantaged.
  • About 262,352 of these students were white; 181,368 students were not.

With these numbers, we can find some overlap between the white subgroup and the economically disadvantaged subgroup:

  • Suppose all 181,368 non-white students who scored below proficiency were also economically disadvantaged. If we remove them from the 318,381 economically disadvantaged students that scored below proficiency, there would be 137,013 students left over.
  • This means that, at minimum, 137,013 economically disadvantaged students that scored below proficiency were also white.
  • In other words, more than half (at least 52.2%) of the 262,352 white students in Tennessee that failed to meet proficiency in math were economically disadvantaged.

This is an extremely conservative estimate, as it assumes every non-white student that didn't meet proficiency also came from an economically disadvantaged background (an unrealistic assumption, if not completely absurd). In other words, the actual number of economically disadvantaged white students in Tennessee that didn't meet proficiency in math is most likely much higher. There is a considerable performance gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.

So, intentional or not, Hacker downplays the plight of economically disadvantaged students with his unqualified claim that algebra presents a burdensome obstacle for students regardless of their ethnic or economic background.

This is an incredibly unfortunate oversight, because the truth is that poverty is a major factor in determining a child's preparedness to succeed in school. If Hacker wants to talk about an "onerous stumbling block for all students," he shouldn't be discussing algebra. He should be discussing poverty, which is independent of race (Burney & Beilke, 2008) and perhaps the root cause of many students' failures to complete high school. It is a major issue that warrants our attention and discussion.

Students who come from economically disadvantaged households have parents who not only have low incomes, but often a lower level of education than parents from other households. Both of these are indicators of how likely a student is to be successful in school (Davis-Kean, 2005). Such students are less likely to value education and to have the necessary resources at home to prepare them to succeed in their academic pursuits.

Many economically disadvantaged students live in concentrated urban settings that do not always attract high-quality teachers, further diminishing their chances of academic success (Burney & Beilke, 2008).

On top of this, poverty is often viewed as being an "individual problem," associated with laziness, apathy, amorality, lawlessness, poor parenting and a lack of education (Bullock, 2006). This stigma is an incredible barrier for economically disadvantaged students, particularly when their teachers accept this stigma as reality.

There is truth in what Dr. Perry said about algebra being a barrier for students from historically disadvantaged groups. None of the factors described above bode well for a student's ability to succeed in their K-12 education, let alone in algebra.

Blaming algebra for the failure of these students to graduate from high school or finish an undergraduate degree is like blaming the 20th mile for a one-legged runner's failure to finish a marathon. We shouldn't be addressing whether or not the 20th mile is too hard, we should be addressing the fact that the runner is missing a leg.

So before we question whether or not algebra is necessary, we should be questioning whether or not we, as a society, are doing everything we can to equip all of our students to be successful in their K-12 education. All students need equitable access to the support and resources necessary to successfully complete their education. Facing this challenge must be a priority if we really want our students to realize their potential.

In the meantime, we must also heed Dr. Perry's call to emphasize rigor, relationships, and relevance in our classrooms. We are going to continue getting students that are ill-prepared for educational success, and we are going to need to be creative to support their needs. This requires getting to know our students: what their interests are and how they learn. Doing so equips us to provide such students with opportunities for meaningful, authentic learning experiences that can capture their attention, connect new knowledge to old, and help them see the value in what they're learning.

For the record, I do think teaching algebra is necessary; but that's not the issue here.

Bullock, H. (2006). Justifying inequality: A social psychological analysis of beliefs about poverty and the poor (National Poverty Center Working Paper Series #06-08). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from www.npc.umich.edu/publications/workingpaper06/paper08/working_paper06-08.pdf

Burney, V.H. & Beilke, J.R. (2008). The constraints of poverty on high achievement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 31(3), 295-321.

Davis-Kean, P.E. (2005). The influence of parent education and family income on child achievement: The indirect role of parental expectations and the home environment. Journal of Family Psychology, 19(2), 294-304.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

For the Interns and the First-Years

It's August! A new school year is just around the corner! Huzzah!

I'm very excited for the school year. It will be my fourth year teaching math at New Tech High @ Zion-Benton East. I have great students and awesome colleagues who have become dear friends of mine. I also have some new ideas that I'm excited to try out in the classroom!

For many teachers, 2012-13 will be the first year of their careers. For many pre-service teachers, this year will see them taking on an internship in preparation for entering the profession.

I attended Michigan State University for my undergrad. Michigan State's teacher education program requires a year-long internship, as opposed to the standard ten weeks at many other colleges and universities. In many ways, my internship was like my first year of teaching.

If you're about to start your internship or your first year of teaching this year, you need to know: this is going to be a hard year. An exhausting year. For me, it was the most stressful year of my life.

"Thanks for the rosy outlook, Jeff," you might be thinking to yourself.

Look, I would be doing you a disservice by sugar-coating it and saying everything is going to go smoothly. I also think you're perceptive enough to know that things won't go smoothly. But there are some things I think you should hear/read now, before the school year begins.

This isn't a definitive "survival guide," and most of what I'm about to say really has little to do with actual teaching. These are just some lessons I picked up from my internship year. I hope you can take something away from this.

So, to the interns and the first-years, this is for you:

1. This year is not going to kill you.

That's probably far more dramatic than I needed to put it. But, you are going to survive this year.

You're going to work very hard, you're going to have some awesome moments along the way, and some not-so-awesome moments as well.

This is a year to discover who you are as a professional and as an adult.

You're not going to do everything right. New teachers never do. Veteran teachers never do.

There is so much to know about teaching; there's not a single teacher prep program out there that can teach everything there is to know about teaching before entering the profession, because nobody lives that long.

Just do your best.

2. Use your support systems.

There are going to be times when you feel very alone and overwhelmed. These are the times that you need to reach out to people.

I called my mom so many times during my internship.

I called, texted, and IMed other math ed students in my cohort. (They called, texted, and IMed me, too.)

I vented to my professor. I vented to other teachers.

I vented to my girlfriend (who somehow thought it was still a good idea to marry me later on).

If I hadn't had all of these people around to listen to me when I needed to talk to someone (or ask a panicked question about what the hell a "unit" was and how to plan it), I'd probably be locked up in a padded room right now.

Let your friends and family know that you might need to rely heavily on their emotional support this year. You're going to need people to listen to you and to advise you. Know that you have these people.

Whatever you do, however you do it, just use the hell out of your support network.

(Addendum: As noted in the comments section below, blogging is also a great way to get support and feedback, too!)

3. Leave school at school.

There are many times that teachers do have to take work home, particularly assignments to grade. That's just part of the job.

There are other times, though, when you can leave work, go home, and not have to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow. This is when you need to learn to leave school at school.

During my internship, I would stay at school until 4:00, sometimes 5:00, before packing up and going home. I spent this time grading, planning new lessons, creating assignments, and so on. I'd be reasonably prepared for the next day and decide it was time to head back to my apartment.

Upon getting home, my brain wouldn't shut off. I kept thinking about everything: wondering if I wasn't doing enough or if I was doing too much with my lesson plans; wondering if I was going to do a great job the next day, or totally bomb; wondering what other ways I could explain material to the students, or what other activities I could possibly have them do; and so on.

It drove me crazy and kept me awake many nights.

One way I found to cope with my inability to stop thinking about school 24/7 was to keep a notepad with me and write down ideas as they came. I also wrote incredibly detailed lesson plans, sometimes pacing things down to the minute. This let my brain have a chance to get everything out and wind down. Gradually, I was able to get to a point where I could leave school and flip off the "teacher switch."

You can't always leave school at school; but when you can, learn how to do it effectively.

4. Exercise.

I wish I'd done more of this during my internship.

As I mentioned in another blog post, I'm currently training for a marathon. I've actually been running regularly every week since this past February, and plan to run more races through next spring. I've lost weight, lowered my blood pressure, and lowered my cholesterol.

Exercising regularly can help you be more energetic and feel more positive during your pre-service experience or your first year of teaching. It also serves as a way to keep you in an established routine, which can be tremendously helpful in organizing the rest of your time.

How do you best like to exercise? Running? Biking? Swimming? Rollerblading? Basketball? Tennis? Tae Kwon Do? Find out your preferred method of staying active, and set aside time to do it at least 3-4 days a week. Some teachers prefer to work out before school, some prefer to work out after.

Find out what works best for you, do it, and stay active. (Even better, see if any of your colleagues or anyone from your cohort will exercise with you!)

5. Eat healthy (or eat, period).

I lived by myself during my internship, and I was God-awful at keeping my place stocked with food. I'd skip breakfast. I ordered out a lot. As I like to tell people, I was sustained by Pokey Stix and Insomnia Cookies during my internship year.

You'll definitely be busy this year. You may think you won't always have time to cook, let alone eat healthy. It's even more difficult if you happen to be living alone. But, there are ways to make it happen.

My advice: Plan out all of your meals for a week (or even two) ahead of time, put together a grocery list, and shop for everything at once. Do this on the weekend. For healthy recipes or recipes that don't take very long to put together, I highly recommend EatingWell.

Teaching makes you hungry. Eat three meals a day. Have some snacks handy, too. Just be sure to eat healthy and prepare your own meals whenever you can. (You'll even spend less money!)

6. GO. TO. BED.

You need to sleep. Seriously. Go bed at the same time, every night. Get at least 7 hours.

You won't be able to function at your best if you're up past midnight worrying about lesson plans or grading papers. Yes, the grading needs to get done, but you have to balance that with your health.

Pick a bedtime and stick to it consistently, with little or no exception.

You might actually save time by doing this. I got myself into a very messy pattern of staying up very late working on plans or grading, getting up at 5 AM (sometimes as early as 4 AM) the next morning, going to school all day, coming home and immediately napping for three hours on the couch out of sheer exhaustion. Sometimes I wouldn't wake back up until 8 or 9 PM, and I'd still have work to do. If I'd stayed awake, I'd probably have gotten all of my work done and then had the rest of the evening to myself.

Get into a regular bedtime routine and avoid naps if at all possible. Use daylight to work, nighttime to rest. 

7. Friday night is a "FUN ONLY" zone.

This may seem obvious now, but many of you may actually need to be reminded of this at some point during the year.

Just as important as learning how to turn off the "teacher switch" is taking some time during the week to have fun. For my money, Friday night is the holy sanctuary of "me time."

You may feel overwhelmed with work, even on Fridays. There may be a lot on your plate during the weekend. Give yourself permission to take a break. If you don't stop to enjoy the weekend, you're going to burn out in a hurry.

Designate Friday night as a "fun only" time. Go to a movie, go have drinks with friends, go on a date, whatever you want. Just make sure you're taking time every Friday to do something fun.

Just don't get too out of control on Friday nights, because...

8. Saturday morning is a great time to get some work done.

Yes, I said to leave school at school whenever possible. But as one week ends, you'll have an entirely new week to plan for.

By all means, sleep in on Saturday. You've earned it.

But don't wait until Sunday evening to start planning for the week ahead. You'll save yourself a lot of needless stress and worry by taking a couple of hours on Saturday mornings to get some work done.

I was masterful at the art of procrastination; having all of that work hanging over my head each weekend not only detracted from my ability to enjoy my free time, it had a cumulative effect throughout the year. I got to the point in March and April of my internship year when I was having a hard time falling asleep on Saturday nights, let alone Sunday nights.

You might not want to do it, but chances are you'll be able to enjoy your weekend a little more if you're proactive on Saturday mornings.

9. Year 2 will be better.

Ask just about anyone who is in the teaching profession.  When you've gone around the block once, things start to click. You feel more confident about your teaching during your second year because you have a sense of "I've done this before." You have something you didn't have in your first year: experience.

Your experience will inform your practice as you take time to reflect and make adjustments. You'll have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. You'll find ways to manage your classroom and engage your students that are better, more efficient.

(By the way, you can do yourself a great service during your first year by making notes of what works well and what needs changed. Take time to reflect on your practice as often as you can. Future you will thank past you for it.)

If the idea that your second year of teaching will be better than your first gets you through, then by all means hold onto it. I can tell you that the third year is even better than the second year. I imagine the fourth year will be better still than the third.

It gets better.

If teaching is your passion, that's all the truth you need this year.

Good luck. Be awesome.